Many people assume that I’m a purist about food and I am, only to the extent that the basic foundation of a dish are present in a dish. Take bún salad bowls, a ubiquitous item on Vietnamese restaurant menus. A meal in a bowl, the south Vietnamese favorite noodle bowl is a terrific way to eat healthfully and creatively.
Summer is grilling time, and the other day with lots of herbs growing in the yard, my husband suggested we make bun for lunch. Without time to marinate and grill pork, fish, etc., I looked to the fridge and found leftover grilled lamb and pork patties, summer squash, pan-roasted potatoes. Not bad, so I went about making the framework for the rice noodle bowl.
Dressing and noodles
First, I made the dressing. It’s nothing but the basic Vietnamese nuoc cham dipping sauce made of lime, sugar, fish sauce, water, and chiles. For punch, I used garlic too.
Then I cooked the noodles. You have to have small round rice noodles called bún to properly define bún. In Vietnam, the noodles are sold fresh but abroad most people cook them from dried. In dried form, they look like wiry translucent sticks and are sold in 1-pound packages labeled “Rice Sticks” that contain 3 flats of noodles; pagoda brand (Bun Thap Chua) is a standard. Boil them in plenty of water for 3 to 5 minutes, until opaque and chewy-tender. Drain and let the noodles cool completely, during which they’ll get slightly tacky, their nature. Here’s a handy bun rice noodle primer.
Bun Salad Bowl Fixings
As the noodles cooked, I washed lettuce and readied other veggies. In the bowl, there is usually a salad mixture of lettuce, herbs, and maybe some cucumber. Note the following:
- Herbs – can be as simple as cilantro and mint. If you want to add more flavor, cut up some basil, tia to (red/purple perilla), or kinh gioi (Vietnamese balm). Regardless of herb, use the leaves only.
- Lettuce – use soft leaf lettuce, such a butter (Boston, Bibb), or red or green leaf.
- Cucumber – pickling, Japanese, or English are my favorites. Seed and remove some of the peel if you like. Then cut them into stubby matchsticks or thin rings.
You can cut the herbs and lettuce up to create a salad mixture to divide among individual large bowls. Or if you’re short of time, like I was the other day, I piled the raw garnishes on a platter and took it to the table. My husband and I created our own bowls, varying them a little as we went along. It was lots more fun than presenting each person with a pre-assembled bowl with dressing on the side.
Since we were in the self-service mode, the noodles went on a plate and was brought to the table too. Had I made each of us a big bowl like at the restaurants, the noodles would have been divided among the bowls.
Optional goodies for some plush richness include fried shallots and/or unsalted, roasted peanuts. I had some marvelous fried shallots in the fridge and peanuts in the freezer so I set some out in small bowls. Some folks doll up the bowls with some pickled daikon and carrot for extra color and crunch.
Spruce up the main protein feature
What did I do with the leftover meats and vegetables that I was trying to recycle? I thinly sliced the lamb and stirfried it with garlic and shallot, reheated the pork patties in the toaster oven and then threw them directly into the nuoc cham dipping sauce so they’d pick up some Viet flavor. Finally I cut up the squash into bite-size pieces. The potato was small enough to pick up with chopsticks so no further cutting necessary. All of these main elements were presented on a platter for us to select at the table.
At the table, we drank white wine — a lovely Kermit Lynch proprietary vin de Vaucluse white, chatted, and made up our crazy and colorful bún salad bowls, tossing the elements together and then adding copious amounts of dressing. We traded opinions on what tasted best (my husband was skeptical about the potato but said they were okay) and deemed it a perfect lunch.