On a trip to Vietnam this past December, I unexpectedly rediscovered salad. There, amidst steaming bowls of brothy noodle soup and giant plates of drool-worthy grilled meats, were these little unsuspecting produce-forward wonders. Salads bursting with flavours and textures beyond anything I had ever imagined. Each bite a new experience, we savoured every mouthful. Safe to say, it completely blew my mind. This recipe pays homage to that experience, while also highlighting all the beautiful spring greens the markets seem to be bursting with here these days.
Nuoc cham is a very common condiment in Vietnamese cooking that uses fish sauce as one of its main ingredients. It is often eaten as a dipping sauce, but can also be used as a salad dressing. The resulting mixture is pungent and intense to say the least, yet it still maintains a fine equilibrium because of the lime juice, sugar and chilies also used to make it.
For those who are not familiar with fish sauce, I hope you will come to love it as much as I do, for it is one of my absolute favourite ingredients to cook with right now. It has the ability to season just like salt, but also brings its own complexity and depth of flavour due to its fishy origins. In Vietnam, fish sauce is made by fermenting anchovies with salt, but as there are many different brands of fish sauce available, the flavours and ingredients used to make them can vary. I have currently been using a fish sauce made primarily from crabs, which lends a distinct shellfish taste to the dressing, but feel free to use whichever fish sauce you are able to get your hands on.
At the restaurant I filet and smoke my own trout to use in this recipe, but I realize that this isn’t always the easiest task to undertake in a home kitchen. Hot smoked salmon or even candied salmon would make a delicious alternative.
For the salad greens, I prefer to make my own mix using a combination of interesting and hearty lettuces and greens I come across at the market. You could readily substitute with a head of fresh green or red head lettuce and a bag of baby kale or mixed greens if necessary.
Oh, and if you are a fan of spicy food, don’t hesitate to leave the seeds in the bird’s eye chilies when you chop them up in order to turn the heat up a little.
Vietnamese-Style Smoked Fish and Pomelo Salad
Ingredients (serves 6)
Nuoc cham salad dressing
4 Thai bird’s eye chilies
⅔ cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
1¼ cup fish sauce
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
¾ cup white sugar
Wearing gloves, remove the seeds from two (or more if you prefer less spicy) of the chilies. Mince finely. Combine in a small bowl with the salt, sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. Whisk to combine until sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Taste and adjust seasoning with more fish sauce, sugar or lime as necessary. Can be made up to three days in advance.
1 large pomelo, thick rind and bitter membranes removed
200 to 400 grams smoked trout or other smoked fish of choice, roughly broken into bite sized pieces
6 large handfuls of mixed hearty salad greens of your choice
3 cups mixed fresh herbs (Thai basil, mint, dill, parsley, cilantro, chervil), lightly packed
3 shallots, peeled and sliced very finely lengthwise
4 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
¾ cup store-bought fried shallots
¼ cup vegetable oil
Nuoc cham dressing to taste
6 teaspoons trout roe for garnish (optional)
Separate each peeled pomelo segment into bite-size or smaller pieces, being careful not to completely smash and destroy the juicy, pulpy flesh in the process. Add all ingredients except the oil, nuoc cham and trout roe, to a large mixing bowl. Toss together gently. Add the vegetable oil and about ½ cup of nuoc cham to start. Toss gently to combine and taste. The salad should be well-seasoned and punchy flavoured and even a bit spicy if you ended up leaving all the seeds in your chilies. Gradually add more nuoc cham as you see fit to increase the seasoning if you feel like the salad isn’t seasoned enough. Toss and taste in between each addition. You likely won’t need to add all of the dressing you have made, but it keeps well in the fridge for up to two weeks. Divide the finished salad among six plates and garnish each one with 1 teaspoon of trout roe. Enjoy immediately.