Like chicken soup, chicken salads have a place of everyday honor in cuisines around the world. I adore the mayonnaise-dressed versions of my Southern childhood (and adulthood), but I’m in love with this Vietnamese take on the cool-chicken off-the-bone dish, with its ribbons of crisp raw cabbage, fish-sauce/pepper kick, and bright refreshing flavor-splashes of fresh herbs. Traditionally this dish includes rau ram, an herb treasured in the kitchens of Vietnam. You may find rau ram in Asian markets as well as at farmer’s markets, and if you like tending herbs, it’s a rewarding, low-maintenance one to grow at home. I’ve found plants at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market here in Piedmont North Carolina. Its long, spear-shaped leaves grow widely spaced on segmented stems, and it often sports two distinctive marks on its leaves; but not always, so consider that a clue but not an absolute when seeking rau ram. Here is how it is packaged and sold at a local Asian supermarket:
Here is rau ram, cooling its roots in a jar of water, and displayed on a plate to give you an idea of how the stalks and leaves look when freed from their plastic platter:
If you don’t find rau ram in time to make this salad, you can make a delicious version of the classic dish using fresh mint in place of rau ram. For more information on this aromatic and pleasingly astringent and bright tasting Vietnamese herb, visit food writer and cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen here:
Your cookbook shelf should already be home to copies of her two essential books:
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006)
Asian Dumplings (Ten Speed Press, 2009)
But if it is not, fix that, preferably at your nearest actual, or most beloved online, independent bookseller’s place of business. And now, time for a lovely, tasty and pleasing chicken salad:
Nancie’s Chicken Salad, Vietnamese-Style, with Shredded Cabbage and Fresh Mint
This simple assembly of everyday ingredients produces a marvelously refreshing dish. The signature Vietnamese herb called rau ram is a perfect complement for the chicken and other seasonings, but fresh mint is lovely if you don’t have rau ram. If you want to prepare this ahead, and can be a little fussy about it, consider mixing the dressing and preparing the herbs, vegetables, chicken, and peanuts. Pretty close to serving time, combine everything in a big bowl, toss well, and enjoy.
1 pound boneless chicken breasts, or 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar, or freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup very thinly sliced onion
1/2 cup fresh mint, cilantro, or basil leaves
1/2 cup rau ram leaves (optional)
2 cups finely shredded green, savoy, or napa cabbage
3/4 shredded carrots
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted and salted peanuts (optional)
Put the chicken in a medium saucepan and add 2 to 3 cups of water, enough to cover the chicken by about 1/2 inch. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer, and cook until done, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and pepper in a medium bowl, and stir to dissolve the sugar and mix everything well. Add the onion and toss to coat. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes, until you are ready to complete the dish.
Transfer the meat to a place to cool, reserving the broth for another use, such as making soup or cooking rice. When the chicken is cool, tear it into long, thin shreds. Coarsely chop the mint and the rau ram, if you are using it. Add the shredded chicken, cabbage, carrots, mint, and rau ram to the bowl of onions and seasonings and toss to coat everything well. Mound the salad on a serving plate and top with chopped peanuts, if you are using them. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
This recipe comes from Quick & Easy Vietnamese by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books), Copyright 2006, all rights reserved.