What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art.
~ Augustus Saint-Gaudens
A few years ago, I was in Ho Chi Minh on a girls' trip away and I remember eating plenty of street food over that period in time (our Asian tummies are well trained for that sort of hardcore feasting). What I enjoyed most about Vietnamese cuisine is its range, the delightfully complex flavors of many of its dishes showcasing contrasts of taste and texture, as well as heat against cold.
So when my Instagram buddy, Joe, challenged me to take a classic Vietnamese dish and put my own spin on it, I immediately thought of this flavorful, yet incredibly simple to create, Bún Chay, or noodle salad. Usually it's made with vermicelli rice noodles, a generous handful of fragrant herbs, julienned vegetables, crunchy bean sprouts, a savory protein such as tofu, and a salty-sour-sweet sauce.
Basil, cilantro & Vietnamese mint
My spin on this was on two aspects: one was to make a more flavorful version of the tofu, in the form of Tofu Cheese Balls. I filled these up with the homemade vegan cheese from my last post and also contained Shiitake mushrooms which gave them a certain depth in flavor. Once fried, they are crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and provided that lovely contrast of heat against the coolness of the salad.
I'd like you to think of this more as an inspiration and a rough guide than a recipe. The tofu cheese balls can be prepared ahead of time and reheated, but if you are strapped for time, you can simply serve the bún with deep fried sliced tofu, which is quick and easy to cook. Variations could include marinated tofu to add more flavor, baked tofu for a healthier version, or adding meat or seafood for a non-vegetarian version. Just feel free to include more or omit some vegetables, use any herbs you like and have available, but most of all, be creative and enjoy creating your customized bún chay.
My second spin on this dish involves a tweak on the sauce. Traditionally, bún is served with a sauce called nuoc cham, which includes nuoc mam, or fish sauce. Here, I've made a quick vegan version using soy sauce and minced nori. This is a trick I've learnt (from watching Heston Blumenthal's Mission Impossible food series) to introduce umami to the sauce and enhance the intensity of its flavor. The nori can work surprisingly well in a variety of other dishes too, and I can't wait to show you in future posts. In the meantime, enjoy!
Vegan Bún Chay (Vietnamese Noodle Salad) with Tofu Cheese Balls
Serves: 2 to 3
100g/4 oz dried rice sticks or vermicelli
1 1/2 cups shredded red cabbage and/or lettuce
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup julienned cucumber (I made ribbons)
1/2 cup julienned carrots (I cut mine using flower cutters)
Large handful of mixed herbs, coarsely chopped or torn (basil, mint, cilantro; if available, rau răm or Vietnamese mint)
1 large red pepper, deseeded and julienned
1 sheet nori, minced finely in a blender
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons water
1 clove garlic, crushed
Tofu Cheese Balls:
450g/15oz firm tofu, well drained
150g/5oz soft cheese (I used vegan mozzarella)
1 cup Shiitake mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, sliced finely
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
oil, for deep frying
2-3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, chopped
For the noodles
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add rice sticks. Stir and cook until noodles are white and tender but still firm, about 3-5 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water, fluffing the noodles to separate the strands. Drain again completely.
For the greens
Prepare the greens and set aside. (May be prepared ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator.)
For the sauce
In a small bowl, whisk together ingredients for sauce. Set aside. (May be prepared ahead of time kept in the refrigerator.)
For the tofu balls
1. Place all ingredients (except oil) in a food processor and blend until homogeneous.
2. Place about 1 tablespoon of tofu mixture on palm of hand and roll into a ball. If mixture is too sticky, moisten palms with a little water before rolling.
3. Heat oil to 350F/175C and deep fry balls until golden brown. Drain excess oil on paper towel and serve hot.
Divide the noodles between two bowls. Arrange greens and tofu balls on top or the sides and garnish with peanuts. Just before eating, drizzle with sauce to taste and toss.