This is a very simple yet tasty dish that was a hit at many of the dinners we held this year. At one dinner, a couple of guests fought to keep this dish on the table when I attempted to remove it to make room for other dishes on the menu :). This salad is a study of balancing various tastes and textures: sweetness of baby clams & tartness of tamarind, chewiness of baby clams & meatiness of young jack fruit (it’s a staple ingredient of vegetarian cuisine in South and Southeast Asia) & crunchiness of rau om (rice paddy herb) and rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), rice crackling and peanuts. And best of all, the salad is extremely easy to make and should take no more than 30 minutes in the kitchen, including prep time.
Here’s a quick dish about one of my favorite quick dishes. In Michigan the year is at that sweet spot when the weather and the heirloom tomato season makes every shopping day a mandatory caprese salad for lunch day. With fresh, tasty and local tomatoes and mozzarella purchased less than an hour before, the dish requires minimal embellishment and so mere minutes after arriving home with the grocery I could be sitting down to reward myself with a leisurely, cool Mediterranean meal – sometimes followed by a Mediterranean siesta especially if I had some wine with my lunch. This past week, Oanh interrupted me as I went to harvest some basil for my salad. She had a hunch that rau om would work well in caprese salad and suggested I try that instead. She was right.
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!
Up ’til now, most of our experiments revolved around applying new techniques and ingredients to Vietnamese cooking. Here’s a new twist on that: using a Vietnamese herb to flavor Japanese soba noodles. Bird had picked up the Nobu cookbook specifically for its instructions on how to make soba noodles (jalapeno and cilantro-flavored soba noodles). This past weekend we finally worked on that recipe, but substituting in namesake herb rau om (rice paddy herb, Limnophila aromatic).
(the recipe called for strong plain flour in addition to soba flour, but we didn’t know what strong plain flour was so we used wheat flour instead. Will try to find strong plain flour next time)
(we are supposed to use a very thin rolling pin, but we didn’t have such an equipment, so had to make do with our big, fat rolling pin)
We definitely needed more practice making soba noodles: the dough sheet needed to be a lot thinner and we needed to cut the noodles into thinner strands. But it was fun and we can’t wait for more noodle-making. What we were most interested in, however, was to see if and how rau om flavor would stand up to soba noodles and dashi broth.
We paired our rau om soba noodles with the traditional soba broth of kombu dashi, bonito flakes, soy sauce, mirin and sugar. We were glad to see that lovely fragrance of rau om survived the noodle-making process. In addition, the floral scented noodles paired so well with the clean, sweet and refined soba broth, one might have thought rau om flavored soba were a native application of traditional ingredients. Our noodle making skills need more practice, but our minds are whirling at the possibilities rau om noodle has opened up.
Dessert is not my forte. I dislike baking and I never seem to be able to think of new ideas for desserts. That’s why I was so excited when I came up with this dessert and was even more psyched when it actually worked out well.
While cleaning up after a dinner I hosted last fall, I was blown away by the pineapple-tomato flavor combination (pineapple slices and grape tomatoes were used as plate decoration for a vegetarian course). The sweetness of the combo made me think of a dessert. And being from southern Vietnam, a dessert just isn’t complete without coconut milk.
So, the first idea for the dessert was to cook pineapple slices in coconut milk until soft, then serve them on clear tomato gel pieces with tía tô (perrilla) leaves. Tomato gel is made by filtering tomato puree to make clear tomato juice, which is then mixed with agar to make a gel. Here’s what tomato puree and the clear tomato juice look like:
This first version worked out ok, not great, for many reasons: the coconut milk flavor was quite strong and overpowered the pineapple; tía tô flavor didn’t go well with tomato and pineapple. Tía tô also makes the dessert taste confusing because it reminds people of savory dishes and doesn’t work well with sweet things. However, there were enough promises in the dish (I still liked the pineapple and tomato combination) that I decided to keep working on it.
For the next iteration, I tried to use rau om leaves with the leftover pineapple slices and tomato gel. It worked out much better due to the floral fragrance of rau om. The problem of the strong coconut milk flavor was still there, but that could be solved easily.
For the third iteration, I decided to keep the tomato gel, but did not steep tía tô leaves in the juice (steeping the herbs in the tomato juice didn’t do anything anyway), and cooked the pineapple slices only in sugar until soft. The coconut milk was mixed with maltodextrin to make it into a powder so we could sprinkle it on top of the dessert. This was to solve the problem of the coconut milk flavor taking over the dish. The dessert is served as clear tomato gel topped with a pineapple slice, which is then topped with a rau om leaf and sprinkles of coconut milk powder.
This dish has gotten better with each iteration and people seem to like it, especially the versions with rau om. Another tweak will be to figure out how to make clear tomato juice more efficiently (I had to triply filter the puree to get the juice to be that clear) to preserve more tomato flavor.
Between the 2nd and 3rd iterations, it occurred to me that the ingredients for this dish (pineapple, tomato, rau om) are among the core ingredients of canh chua (Vietnamese sour soup). Maybe in the next iteration, I can try to work tamarind into the dish. Then, as Lamp said, I should name this dish “canh chua ngot” (“sweet canh chua”). A ridiculous naming suggestion, as always.
But this dish does need a name and I am too uncreative to think of one. What do you think should be the name of this dish?