Vietnamese cuisine is one of the most varied on the planet. From the Chinese and Khmer dynasties, Indian empire and Japanese occupation but in particular, the French colonial rulers. Vietnam is a delicious mix of the food of its colonial visitors and native techniques and flavours. War, climate and immigration tell the tale of Vietnamese cuisine.
Vietnamese cuisine is incredibly light and fresh; herby-fresh: lemongrass, mint, coriander and Thai basil frequently mixed through dishes. Fish sauce is used liberally but is never as pungent as the Thai variety (nam pla) and vegetables such as carrot, cabbage or green papaya are chopped into crunchy batons adding colour and texture to a dish.
People sat curbside on plastic stools enjoying a bowl of pho or congee before dealing with the rest of their day; the smell of food wafting through side streets and intoxicating the senses. Food is pivotal to Vietnamese lifestyle and can be found on every street corner. The food served in local cafes and restaurants just as good as the street-food served by women carrying a yoke around the town or balancing baskets on hips.
All dishes are created with the Asian principle of the five elements creating harmony. The principle of yin and yang providing balance that is beneficial to the body: wood (sour), fire (bitter), earth (sweet), metal (spicy), water (salty).
So having just got back from my travels in Vietnam I couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and try and recreate some delicious Vietnamese dishes with these principles in mind.
Here is my version of a Vietnamese Chicken Salad with noodles using the ingredients I had in the fridge at the time.
Vietnamese Chicken Salad (Gŏi Gá).
For the dressing:
Chilli (to taste)
For the salad:
Cabbage (White or Asian)
Sugar snap peas
Rice Noodles (vermicelli)
Cooked chicken breast
Basil (use Thai Basil if you can find some)
Roasted peanuts (red skinned)
1st: Prepare the sauce by adding the juice of a lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, minced garlic, chilli and hot water to a jar and shake well until all the sugar is dissolved or place into a blender and blitz until everything is thoroughly mixed together.
2nd: Cut the carrot and red pepper into batons. Roll the cabbage leaves and slice into strips. Tear the cooked chicken breast into mouth sized pieces. Cut the mint, basil and coriander.
Thai Basil v Italian Basil
Thai basil has an aniseed, almost liquorice, flavour to it whereas, Italian (Mediterranean basil) is sweet. Both are incredibly fragrant.
If you can’t find Thai basil which is generally difficult to source outside of Asia, just use a combination of Italian basil and mint.
3rd: Pour boiling water over the vermicelli noodles and allow to rehydrate for 2/3mins. Drain and rinse in cold water. Drain and shake off excess water.
4th: In a large bowl mix all the ingredients together and add a splash of the sauce. Toss together. Add more sauce and lime juice to taste and drizzle with sesame oil (optional) and top with roasted peanuts.
Serve heaped on a large plate in the centre of the table for everyone to serve themselves as part of a main course or make it small enough as a light lunch for one – the ingredients can be doubled up and changed to suit what you’ve got in the fridge. During the summer I tend to have carrots and cabbage knocking about in the fridge to make coleslaw and I’ve always got red peppers in my deep freeze. Remember to use veg that you can eat raw as you need it to be fresh and crunchy to work in this dish. I used nuggets of palm sugar brought back from Cambodia but regular granulated sugar works just as well.
The great thing about dishes like this is that you can tailor make them to suit your needs – instead of chicken add duck for a different taste, fried squid to make it a super light summer meal, tofu to keep it meat-free. I say chilli to taste as depending on how much heat you can take will determine whether you use birds eye chillies or opt for a milder variety. Always remember you could make this very fresh and mild and provide either birds eye chillies or tabasco sauce for those who can take a bit more heat.
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