Summertime in North America is the season of heat, watermelon, and family gatherings, and the perfect time to make and enjoy this refreshing and festive salad. The recipe was an original creation of Fatty Crab‘s Zekary Pelaccio and was written up by The New York Times, where we found it. Sweet and fluffy watermelon cubes tossed in an aromatic ginger cilantro dressing and tangy pickled watermelon rinds were coolly delicious contrasts against juicy roast pork belly. Spicy scallion, rau răm / Vietnamese coriander, and Thai basil completed this unusual salad that in its own way provided all the textural and flavor elements of gỏi (Vietnamese salad). The original recipe combined elements of Southern United States cuisine with spices and techniques chef Pelaccio encountered in Malaysia. We substituted his crispy fried pork belly for a star anise marinated roast pork that was more reminiscent of heo quay (roast pork), an ingredient associated with celebrations in Vietnam. We had no idea how one would classify a dish in which so many lineages were mixed together, but we felt perfectly at home serving and enjoying this salad out in the backyard with the rest of our family.
It’s bothered us for a while that we can make Latin American ceviche but we had no idea how to make Vietnamese ceviche (gỏi cá). This past weekend, we set out to correct this imbalance.
We wanted to learn to make the dish as traditionally as possible so it was time to read up on recipes. Google searches turned up many recipes and instructions in Vietnamese that were all over the place. As we did more searches into this dish, we were struck by how a dish could be quintessentially Vietnamese (lots and lots of greens and herbs in a rice paper roll) and yet unique among its peers (wetting rice paper in coconut milk anyone?). We decided to draw on the common and/or interesting elements from the recipes that we found. So, consider this a best practice review (as Lamp would put it) or a high-level synthesis (my way of describing it) (can you guess the fields we are in yet? :D).
For the fish: we bought whole sardines. The fish mongers cleaned the fish for us, but we had to fillet them ourselves. We marinated sardines fillets in lime juice (~5′), then drained and squeezed out the juice from the fillets (care should be taken not to mush the fillets). We saved this juice to make dipping sauce. Sardine fillets were then mixed with minced ginger, garlic, galanga (riềng) and roasted rice powder (thính). We marinated fish fillets for a few hours in the fridge.
For the dipping sauce: we added coconut soda/juice (or water) to the fish marinade saved earlier, then added fish sauce, sugar and lime juice to taste. Then minced garlic, chili peppers and roasted peanuts were added to complete the sauce.
For the greens: as many herbs and vegetables as possible. When this dish is served in Viet Nam, the fish is accompanied not only by herbs but also by many different types of young leaves gathered in the backyard and/or forest. We didn’t quite know how to forage in the wild yet, so had to resort to foraging at the farmers’ market and an Asian supermarket. After a long walk through these 2 markets, we ended up with the following:
- dandelion greens
- 2 types of young kales
- húng cây (spearmint)
- kinh giới (Vietnamese balm)
- rau răm (Vietnamese coriander)
- rau om (rice paddy herbs)
- bean sprouts
- chuối chát (plantain)
- khế (starfruit)
- kiwi (for sourness, since we only found 1 starfruit at the market and it didn’t look like it’d be sour)
(Did we mention this was a quintessentially Vietnamese dish? This list isn’t much longer than a standard list of greens that typically accompany a dish involving rolling food in rice paper)
Oh, and don’t forget the coconut: diluted coconut milk (1:10) for wetting rice paper and coconut meat for inclusion in the rice paper rolls. The recipes called for roasted grated coconut, which we forgot to get, so we made do with the tender flesh of the young coconut instead. It was fine – grated coconut would assert itself more forcefully as a distinct textural component, but roasted young coconut flesh was rich and flavorful. A new ingredient to work with!
Phew, that was it for preparations. This is what the spread looked like:
The glass of wine contained nước sim (hill gooseberry juice) mixed with shochu. Most of our working recipe is adapted from the gỏi cá style practiced in Phú Quốc, where sim fruits are plentiful and rượu sim (sim liquor) is a local delicacy. We would love to get our hands on authentic sim liquor someday, but the faux rượu sim paired very well with gỏi cá.
When we finally sat down, made our rolls, dipped them in dipping sauce, and took our bites, we encountered a riot of flavors. Our taste buds definitely had to work overtime with each bite given the incredible blend of flavors: spicy galanga and fragrant roasted rice commingling with the strong fish flavor of sardines, floral flavor of rau om, savoriness and creaminess of roasted coconut, bitterness of dandelion greens, leafiness of young kales, sweet fruitiness of starfruit, stringency of plantain, sourness of kiwi, sharp freshness of herbs and saltiness of dipping sauce that had been accentuated with fish marinade and roasted peanuts. Oh my. And yet the ingredients blended together harmoniously or else waited their turns to assert themselves, making for a different sensation with each chew.
We were blown away by this dish. I actually thought it was much better than bò nhúng dấm (vinegar beef hotpot), which means a lot since bò nhúng dấm has always been my favorite dish. This dish is definitely more complex, starting with the defiantly fishy sardines that eclipse the milder vinegary beef. The variety of vegetables are similar, but gỏi cá trích specifically calls for as many as you can get, preferably by foraging, so that’s another point in its favor. Even the rice paper dipped in coconut milk, which we were initially skeptical about, turned out great – not greasy but a vehicle for additional coconut richness. Finally, it’s hard to beat a dipping sauce that decorates nước chấm (fish sauce with all its usual fixings ) with roasted peanuts and lime-fish marinade. Yum, and a new favorite!
One of the goals Bird and I are working towards is to come up with new dishes that are identifiably and uncompromisingly Vietnamese. Having availed ourselves fully of modern material culture, we still want the lineage of our dishes to be apparent, and the appeal of our recipes to mirror that of the recipes that inspired them. This is one of our successes:
The Vietnamese inspiration for this dish was chè trôi nước aka chè xôi nước, bánh trôi nước, or bánh trôi bánh chay. Briefly: it’s a dessert of glutinous rice dumplings with or without mung bean paste filling, floating (trôi) in a strong gingery sweet syrup. The other inspiration was Thomas Keller’s fake egg yolks (encapsulated mango juice) for his vegetarian steak tartare. The third element came from a variant recipe for bánh trôi nước using khoai môn (taro) to make the glutinous outside purple. Putting it all together we get the above picture.
Our version of chè trôi nước is encapsulated mung bean milk and purple sweet potato puree. The encapsulation is done via reverse spherification: Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate is dissolved into the liquid to be encapsulated at 2% while sodium alginate is dissolved into a water bath at 1%. Sodium alginate is a substance extracted from seaweed that remains liquid until crosslinked into a gel by calcium. When mung bean milk or sweet potato puree is dropped into the alginate bath the calcium reacts with the alginate to form a gel coat around the milk/puree. The spheres are stored in a different water bath containing 8% sugar (roughly the amount added to sweeten the milk/puree) to prevent diffusion of water changing the content of the spheres. Before serving the spheres are placed in a bowl of hot (temperature wise) and spicy ginger syrup and drizzled with coconut milk. The spheres are the reason why we took off the diacritical mark from bánh (cake) to form the word banh (ball).
We were excited to serve this dish as our featured dessert during the Tết season and were happy to see it produce just as much excitement with our friends and our parents and their friends. People loved the fact that the spheres popped in their mouths. My friends in particular were reduced to the level of giggling high school stoners. Many noted the interesting contrast between the cool and almost savory liquid inside and the hot and spicy gingery syrup outside. It’s a neat effect we didn’t design for, but we’ll take credit for it. Now I can’t wait to make this dish for my grandmother, who introduced and made it for me when I was little.