I recall being sat in the middle of steamy kitchen in a small town in Thailand; the two women speaking melodically in their native tongue. There was giggling, laughter and the percussion like sound of the wooden pestle pounding against the hardwood mortar. It was 7 in the morning and breakfast was being prepared.
I was here on a stopover prior to an adventure in the sub-continent, but it was here, in this kitchen, with these two ladies that my adventure began. I sat mesmerised at the high energy these ladies exerted whilst pounding the ingredients, especially in the humid heat. And yet they made it look easy, whilst smiling and maintaining a high octane conversation. Momentarily they would look up at me, look at each other, and then giggle before continuing the grind, as it were.
The next part is what I distinctly remember; moreover as it was something I had never seen before. One of the ladies showed me a large fruit item – which a few days after I learnt to be green papaya – and then began to fervently lacerate it with a large old looking chopping knife, more akin to a bone cleaver. Then she delicately shaved it and away peeled hundreds of finely formed ribbons. I noted this down in my mind’s journal, and years later I recall it as I am preparing a Vietnamese salad in the confines of a Melbourne kitchen; although this time with a carrot.
Given its close proximity to Vietnam there are many similarities in the flavour profile of the food from Thailand; the enchanting mix of the sweet, salt and sourness underpinned with garlic and chilli. And a great Vietnamese salad is very much about shredding and tearing, much like that which occurred those years ago in the steamy Thai kitchen.
Green papaya can be difficult to find and so I have substituted it for red cabbage which with carrot makes a visually stunning salad. I am very fortunate to be living very close to ‘Little Vietnam’ here in Melbourne so have great access to most of the herbs that I found and tasted when in Thailand and Vietnam. This salad has been carefully developed on and off over a few months, mainly to get a great balance of flavour; but there is everything right in you trying to find your perfect blend of herbs and flavours, using this as a base.
Vietnamese Red Cabbage SaladPrint
- ■ 150g red cabbage | Finely shredded, known as chiffonade.
- ■ 24 leaves Asian (Thai) basil |
- ■ 24 leaves Vietnamese mint |
- ■ 24 leaves mint |
- ■ 24 small sprigs coriander | A small sprig is about 3 leaves.
- ■ 24 leaves perilla |
- ■ 1 carrot | Peeled and shredded/ finely julienned.
- ■ 1 serving nuoc cham | See below for recipe link.
Prepare the nuoc cham at least half an hour before serving the salad in order for the ingredients to become intimately acquainted.
Place the Asian basil, Vietnamese mint, mint, coriander and perilla leaves in a bowl of iced water for about 5 minutes, to freshen and crisp. Remove the leaves from the water and roughly tear in to a large bowl. Add the shredded red cabbage and carrot. Mix with your hands.
A minute before serving add the nuoc cham to the salad and thoroughly, but carefully, mix with your hands so the herbs, cabbage and carrot are coated in the dressing. Leave the salad to marinade for one minute and then serve.
I find plating this salad using a hand has two benefits: firstly, most of excess liquid is drained and therefore there are no large ‘puddles’ on the plate; and secondly, it is easier to shape the salad on the plate.
The recipe for nuoc cham is here.
This is an incredibly versatile salad and goes particularly well with a medium rib-eye steak fillet, an extremely good quality pork sausage or even pan-fried snapper.