vietnam salad 88.
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I was introduced to Vietnamese cuisine in the 1970s in Parisian restaurants, where I enjoyed learning about a style of cooking that was different from the French food I was studying in my cooking classes.
The Vietnamese meals I ate were composed of the light seafood dishes of the south rather than the hearty beef soups of the north (with which I later became acquainted in Los Angeles.) Fish was served steamed with vegetables and ginger, or braised with Chinese mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginger, soy sauce and wine, or sauteed with white and green onions and rice noodles.
In Le chant du riz pile (the chant of the pounded rice), Le Thanh Khoi notes that the subtle south Vietnamese style of cooking is more approachable to the uninitiated than the northern. For example, north Vietnamese often serve nuoc mam, the pungent Vietnamese fish sauce made of cured ocean fish, straight, while in the south its flavor is moderated with lemon juice, garlic, hot pepper and a pinch of sugar. When well made, this sauce grows on you. Vegetarians and those who don't acquire a taste for fish sauce substitute soy sauce.
For me the fresh, subtly seasoned Vietnamese food was particularly appealing in summertime. I enjoyed their type of rice-based meals and their custom of serving generous platters of fresh herb sprigs and leafy greens along with the food.
In fact, I could see why Vietnamese cooking caught on easily in France. Like the French, the Vietnamese use spices with a light hand and herbs with a liberal touch. I found their seafood dishes especially enticing, with their lively yet delicate accents of ginger, lemon grass, mint and fresh coriander, as well as onions and garlic.
Indeed, the Vietnamese have had plenty of experience cooking fresh and salt water fish. To illustrate how easily people there can catch fish, Khoi wrote: "It's often said that a peasant of the Mekong delta starts cooking his rice before going fishing for the entree that will accompany it." They enjoy not only the harvest of the ocean and the rivers; they practice aquaculture too, wrote Binh Duong and Marcia Kiesel in Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking. "The Vietnamese learned the art of aquaculture from the Chinese but... they have their own highly practical way of farming that utilizes the land to its utmost. They dig ponds for raising carp and other species. Often these ponds are in the form of canals that border rice paddies or other field crops and serve as irrigation ditches as well."
Spices are used with a goal beyond flavoring. According to Duong and Kiesel, ginger is "meant to enhance fish while freshening it." Turmeric is "thought to keep fish fresh and prevent deterioration in the hot climate of Vietnam. In the market you'll see displays of cut fish coated with this bright yellow but mildly flavored spice."
Some more unusual Vietnamese fish dishes include tuna cooked in tea with ginger, fish sauce and a little sugar and fish braised with semi-ripe pineapple, shallots, fish sauce and sugar. For a colorful salad, people mix cooked seafood with omelet pieces and strips of cucumber, carrots, and turnips (which have been briefly soaked in salted water). A light dressing of oil, vinegar, water, sugar and fish sauce moistens the medley, with a finishing touch of fresh mint leaves and crushed roasted peanuts.
Another Vietnamese dish I loved was a basic bowl of noodles, which seemed lighter to me than most Italian-style pasta specialties. To make it the typical way, you put bean sprouts and coarsely chopped mint and coriander in a bowl, top them with cooked rice noodles or thin wheat noodles, then with sauteed strips of any meat you like or of tofu. A sprinkling of fish sauce or spicy soy sauce completes the seasoning. The noodles are served in small amounts as an hors d'oeuvre or in more generous portions as a salad-like, refreshing summertime entree.
NOODLES WITH GRILLED FISH AND TOASTED PEANUTS
This is a simple adaptation of a light Vietnamese fish dish. The noodles are tossed with a soy and rice vinegar sauce, then topped by the grilled fish, which is sprinkled with toasted peanuts and coriander leaves. I have substituted broth for the typical fish sauce that would be used in the recipe. For a more delicate taste, use low-sodium instead of regular soy sauce. You can use mint instead of the coriander if you like.
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 tsp. finely grated ginger
1â„2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
3 Tbsp. vegetable broth or parve chicken-flavored broth
1â„2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. plus 3â„4 tsp. sugar
3â„4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
3 large carrots, cut in thin sticks
350 gr. vermicelli (thin spaghetti) or rice noodles
1â„3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups bean sprouts, ends removed
6 Tbsp. chopped green onion
1â„2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. whole fresh coriander leaves
11â„4 cups chopped toasted peanuts
450 gr. halibut or other fish fillets, about 2.5 cm. thick
To make the rice vinegar garlic sauce: Combine the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, broth, rice vinegar, sugar and pepper flakes in a bowl and stir until sugar dissolves. Let stand about 30 minutes at room temperature. Taste, and gradually add 2 to 3 tablespoons water if the sauce is too pungent.
Put carrots in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Add a pinch of salt. Cook about 3 minutes over medium heat or until just tender; drain well.
Cook noodles uncovered over high heat, stirring often with chopsticks or a fork, about 3 minutes for rice noodles or 5 to 8 minutes for vermicelli or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well.
Transfer to a large bowl.
Add 41â„2 tablespoons oil, bean sprouts, carrots and 3 tablespoons green onion to noodles and toss. Add 2â„3 cup sauce in 3 portions, tossing well after each addition. Add 6 tablespoons coriander leaves and 1 cup peanuts and toss.
Preheat broiler or grill with rack about 10 cm. from heat source; or heat stove-top ridged grill on medium-high heat. Brush fish with remaining 21â„2 teaspoons oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set fish on broiler rack or grill with skin side facing heat source. Broil or grill about 4 minutes per side, or until it can just be flaked with a fork, or until a skewer inserted into fish comes out hot when you touch it to underside of your wrist.
Cut fish into eight pieces of approximately equal size. Sprinkle total of 1 tablespoon sauce over all fish pieces.
Transfer noodle mixture to a heated platter and top with fish. Sprinkle fish with remaining 1â„4 cup peanuts, then with remaining 1â„4 cup coriander leaves, allowing peanuts to partially show.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Serve more sauce separately.
Makes 4 main-course servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.