It’s the same old story, or at least it is for me: I come home from a holiday, all sun-tanned, rested and full of good intentions, and declare that I only want to eat the cuisine of the country I just arrived home from. If you go right to the back of my food cupboards, you could probably find enough evidence to guess everywhere I’ve been on holiday in the past five years.
Cooking these dishes at home is easy enough, especially when you live in London and have access to speciality food shops for almost every country in the world, but eating out is a little trickier. Mainly it requires research: if you’ve just arrived home from a holiday exploring the ruins of Chichen Itza, walking into the first Mexican restaurant you find back home is unlikely to recreate your holiday gastronomic experience, because, let’s face it, a lot of restaurants in the UK offering ‘foreign’ cuisines are crap. That being said, if you do your homework, the more authentic places can easily be found (incidentally usually away from the tourist spots.) When I came home from a trip to Vietnam in 2009, I went straight to the Kingsland Road in, what was then a far shabbier, Hoxton to find the best place to satisfy my new-found love for Vietnamese food. Almost everybody I know has a favourite restaurant on the Kingsland Road, and most are fiercely loyal to theirs. I actually have three that I always go to: Mien Tay for pho, Song Que for grilled meats and the Tay Do Café for their tofu with chilli and lemongrass, which is, hands down, the best tofu dish in London.
If south-east Asian food is your thing, it is easy to be satisfied in London; with noodle bars and bahn mi stands in most neighbourhoods. Most are cheap and authentic, and many let you bring your own booze. The one thing that I have to say here, though, and my only real sticking point: the salads are never hot enough.
South-east Asian salads are typically shredded vegetables, and occasionally green mangoes, with a soy-lime-fish sauce dressing, some roasted nuts and a lot of chilli. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that they are completely innocuous, for they look like nothing, but they often pack more of a punch than most of the stir fries and noodle dishes. Once, I watched open-mouthed as a street food vendor threw a handful of chopped red birds-eye chillies into my comparatively small salad, seeds and all. In UK restaurants, the salads are far, far tamer. All of the elements are present and correct, but they will add considerably fewer chillies, presumably to better suit a western palate. I mean, they’re not wrong, for I have many friends who start panting on eating the tiniest bit of sriracha; but I do find myself underwhelmed by most of the salads I’ve had in London. The best one, for me, was the pomelo salad at Smoking Goat on Denmark Street, which was probably the closest to anything I ate in Asia.
This recipe is one that I developed some time ago. The vermicelli noodles makes it part south-east Asian salad and part summer roll filling, but I’ve come to like it very much. The dressing follows the main principle of south-east Asian food: balancing the sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours. I almost typed ‘perfectly’ on to the end of that sentence and then realised that the perfection in this balance is found in your own personal taste. As you will have already gathered, I like a lot of heat in my salads, so have added five birds-eye chillies: two in the dressing and three in the salad . Do scale this down if the mere thought of it is making steam come out of your ears. Similarly, if you are a braver person than I (or you’re cooking dinner for my husband,) then add in one more. I tend to remove the seeds but, again, do keep them in if you wish. If you don’t like prawns, sub in any other leftover cooked fish or meats, or leave it out altogether.
My inlaws came to visit recently and we had this as a side dish alongside some bream baked with ginger and spring onion. And a lot of sriracha.
Vietnamese Prawn Noodle Salad
For the dressing:
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
90ml lime juice
2 birds eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely grated
250g fresh vermicelli noodles
1 large carrot, cut into thin batons
1 cucumber, deseeded and cut into thin batons
3 birds-eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
300g cooked small prawns
2 tbsp basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp mint, finely chopped
2 tbsp coriander, finely chopped
Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl, whisk to dissolve the sugar and set aside.
Stir fry the noodles according to packet instructions, along with the beansprouts, and transfer to a large bowl. Add the carrot, cucumber, chillies, prawns, basil, mint and coriander. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine.
Serves two as a main, or four as a side dish.