This is one of my absolute favourite dishes to serve friends who haven't had much experience with Vietnamese dishes, or aren't into "salads". It's basically a bunch of fresh and quick-pickled vegetables, herbs, a protein, and a delicious umami-sour dressing over a bed of rice noodles. I personally don't think it constitutes a salad, but apparently the internet insists on calling it a salad. Don't let that throw you off, though - this dish is incredibly filling, fresh, and incredibly versatile. Every bite is a flavour burst - sour, umami, salty, herby freshness, peanut butter!! I love it.
You can make this with all kinds of meats, but this time I made it with peanut-sauce coated tofu.
The first thing I do is press the tofu to squeeze out some liquid. In theory I start well before I want to make the meal, but in reality I end up us doing this an hour or two before - the longer you go, the crunchier your final product will be. I do this in a really logical manner... tofu goes between two not-flat plates, on top of which a precarious pile of books gets built. Usually this pile falls off once or twice...(or ten times). There's probably an easier way to do this. Please tell me how.
In between bouts of picking up the perilous tofu book-tower, I prep the other parts of the dish. First, the pickled things. I happened to have pickled carrots already in the fridge, but you can easily quick-pickle other vegetables (daikon, radish, anything firm and crunchy) in vinegar, a pinch of sugar, and salt. You can use a vegetable peeler to make thin strips if you want to do this really quickly.
Then, prep the fresh items - really thinly cut iceberg lettuce, herbs (mint makes it amazing, and basil and coriander often make appearances in my version), and cucumber. At this point I also get some water boiling for the rice noodles (they only need to go in until just soft, then drained quickly to stop the cooking). If you want a hot dish, then start this later, if you want a cold dish, you can do this earlier. I think warm is just right.
The sauce gets made - it's part fish sauce, lime, and brown sugar, then diluted with hot water. Chop in some fresh chillies if you want a spicy kick. I've made it once with soy sauce instead of fish sauce to make it vegatarian, it was a pretty good substitution (gotta pump up the lime though).
When all that is prepped, my attention goes back to the tofu. I pour off the liquid and cut it into sticks.
Then, I coat them in a generous layer of cornstarch, and into a well-oiled pan at med-high heat.
A thick sauce made up of peanut butter, soy sauce, and chillies gets poured directly onto the fried tofu.
Still on high heat, the tofu gets fully smothered in the sauce, until it's all hot.
For some extra crunch, I fried up the white parts of a few stalks of lemon grass - to be honest, I don't think this added much to the dish... though it does make it fancier! Stick to the usual roasted peanuts for crunch.
The final step is to pile it all on top of the noodles, then pour on some sauce and mix it all around. This is a great meal to feed a group, as everyone can cater to their own preferences.
Hope you love the fresh flavours as much as I do!