One of the hardest things in learning about Asian food from my white European perspective is getting to grips with the astonishing array of herbs and greens used in each cuisine. For one thing, many Asian herbs just aren’t available in the west, and at a certain point, substitutions leave you feeling you’ve lost the spirit of a dish. Even when Asian greenery is available, it’s hard to know what’s what. My favourite Hong Kong supermarket in New York had a pretty simple English-language labelling policy: everything that came from an animal was labelled “fish” and everything else was labelled “chicken”. Entertaining, to be sure, but not super helpful in distinguishing your kai lan from your pak choi. This combination of beautiful produce and language barrier taught me to shop differently, to pick what looked fresh and test out flavours at home. This was an important lesson in starting from first principles, being led by the ingredient, but I still wanted to learn the traditional combinations of the cuisines I enjoyed so much. How to bridge the gap between the ingredients described in books and those piled up in stores remained a challenge.
I was hugely excited, then, to see an array of international herbs at the UK Fiery Foods Festival in Brighton this summer. Now, I am not a gardener, or I’d probably have thought of growing my own herbs before. Seriously, I do not have green fingers. I killed a cactus once. But coming upon a display of fresh lemongrass, Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander was too much temptation to resist and I went home with a giant bag of pot plants. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what “Vietnamese coriander” was. The woman who sold it to me said it was extremely pungent and I should use only half a leaf at a time. This seemed kind of crazy, since its taste was somewhere between cilantro and lemon verbena. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to throw handfuls into my next spicy salad.
When I got it home, I figured out that I had bought the herb called rau răm in Vietnam, pak pai in Thailand, and daun laksa in Malaysia. It’s an important Southeast Asian ingredient, essential for laksa, as its name suggests, and used in Laotian larb as well as Vietnamese salads, summer rolls and noodles. It also grows enthusiastically, despite my incompetence, so I’ve been testing it out in a range of dishes. It doesn’t quite work in Thai salads where you want the more forcefully perfumey top-notes of Thai basil, and it seems to fight with fruit. It does marry well with meats, though, especially beef, and it combines well with mint and cilantro. Given these affinities, I tried it out in a Vietnamese beef salad that would usually be made with sawtooth herb.
Vietnamese beef and rau răm salad
- 3 tbsp lime juice
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 4 garlic cloves
- 4 birds eye chilies (or to taste)
- 2 tbsp tamarind water
- 1 steak, trimmed and sliced very thin
- 1/2 cucumber
- 1 carrot
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- a good handful of rau răm – 20 or 30 leaves
- a smaller handful of mint leaves
- 3 tbsp peanuts, toasted and crushed
Peel the carrot and cucumber and then slice into very thin long strips with the peeler. Put them in a bowl and add a tablespoon of caster sugar. Mix well, leave for ten minutes, then drain and squeeze out the excess liquid.
Make the dressing: pound one garlic clove and one chili in a mortar and pestle, then add palm sugar and pound till softened. Add lime juice, fish sauce, and taste for balance. You might need more of one thing or another.
Chop the rest of the garlic finely, and fry in vegetable oil in a hot wok. Add the meat and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes until just coloured all over. (Another good option is to grill the steak till rare and then slice it thin and mix with the fried garlic.)
In a bowl, mix the meat with tamarind water. Add the vegetables, remaining chilies, sliced, and herbs. Dress, mix, and garnish with the peanuts. Serve with rice.
Recipe adapted from Luke Nguyen’s The Songs of Sapa: Stories and Recipes from Vietnam.