Vietnamese Chicken and Carrot Salad
A few weeks ago, we looked at warm salads. At that time I commended the cuisines of the east for the vibrancy of their salads. Now that we are at last getting a bit of heat, this is a good time to venture there. This one is adapted from a Sarah Mellersh recipe. You have met Sarah many times in this column. Sadly, Let’s Cook Scotland will close its doors in September. I’ll let you know what she plans to do next.
You could easily do this as a side salad minus the chicken. The peanuts are also optional – doing this for a Tuesday evening tea I forgot to add them – but you will lose a nice bit of crunch. Vietnam, like Thailand and other neighbouring cuisines, adheres quite strictly to the four pillars of sweet, sour, hot and salty. There is some heat from the sweet chilli sauce. You can obviously adjust that to your taste. Lime is an ever present sour, and fish sauce gives the salt. Carrots have a natural sweetness, and the sweet chilli enhances that. While you can use supermarket ready made, you will see from the accompanying recipe that carrots are also an integral part of a sweet chilli sauce.
You are looking to have very thin strips of chicken in the salad. You could of course just slice your cooked chicken; however, doing it this way means it cooks very quickly (and healthily) and you get the benefit of your aromats on every sliver. To butterfly a chicken breast, open it up and remove the straggly bit on the side (the faux filet). That part will be thin enough, but cut in half to match the thickness of your end product. There are videos which will just show you how to cut it in half. Start by cutting straight down in the middle, stopping before you cut through. Then, with your knife parallel to the board, cut through the thick section on each side, again stopping before you cut completely through. Straighten up the cut and fold over the flap, like turning the page of a book. Repeat the exercise as often as you like (I saw a stall holder in Ecuador do this six times to achieve a wafer thin fillet). Do the same on the other side. You’ll end up with something about 50mm thick. Don’t worry if this seems too much of a palaver, but it does make you feel very eastern, especially if you use a razor sharp cleaver.
Finally, a note on fish sauce. If you wanted to be really authentic, you would insist on nuoc mam, which is Vietnamese fish sauce. Nam pla is the Thai equivalent, which is slightly more salty and pungent, or so I am told. Anyone whose store cupboard contains more than one type is far too serious a foodie for this column. Use what you have. In the supermarkets you are more likely to find Thai.
Ingredients (this will serve 4 as a light meal. In Vietnamese style, better served with a range of other dishes. As a salad, minus the chicken, great with a barbecue)
2 chicken breasts, thinly butterflied (see above); 3 large carrots, peeled and grated; ½ white cabbage, heart removed, finely shredded; 1 large bunch mint, stalks removed, chopped; 2 cm cube of ginger, peeled and grated, plus 6 thin slices for the chicken; 3 tbsp sweet chilli sauce (ready made or see below); 3 tbsp fish sauce (see above); soy sauce (preferably light); juice of 1 lime, plus lime segments for garnish; large handful salted peanuts, chopped (optional); handful copped coriander (optional).
First cook the chicken, ideally in a steamer. If you don’t have a steamer, use a solid sided colander and improvise a lid. Put slices of ginger on top and sprinkle liberally with soy sauce. Steam for five minutes, the set aside. If steaming is impossible, poach in a frying pan with the minimum amount of liquid necessary to cover it. Set aside to cool, then slice into thin slivers.
Put the carrot, cabbage and mint in a bowl. Mix together the fish sauce, sweet chilli sauce and grated ginger. Pour over the veg and toss well. Sprinkle on the peanuts, if using, then arrange the chicken on top. Finish with some chopped coriander, if you fancy.
Sweet Chilli Sauce (this can also be used as a dipping sauce)
Adjust the quantity of chilli to suit your taste, and remove the seeds if you wish. It is more authentic with the seeds left in.
75g grated carrots; 1 red chilli, finely chopped, seeds left in (see above); 100ml water; 100ml vinegar (ideally rice, which failing white wine – NOT malt); 100g sugar; large pinch or two of salt.
Put the water, sugar, vinegar and salt in a pan and heat slowly until the sugar dissolves. Then add the chilli and carrots. Bring to the boil, and bubble gently, stirring occasionally until the mixture turns syrupy. This should take about five minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.