Friday, January 17, 2014

Bun Noodles with Lemongrass Chicken Topping

I have been frequenting Vietnamese restaurants for many years, always with a great deal of pleasure. I can clearly remember the very first one - a tiny place in Glebe in Sydney in the early 1980's (yes I am that old!). I had never tasted anything like their chicken that had been marinated in honey and lemongrass, indeed I didn't even know what lemongrass was. It was such a great combination of flavours made sticky and smoky with chargrilling and served with noodles thinner than I'd ever seen topped with mint and coriander. A total WOW of a dish. Somehow they made huge flavours presented with an extraordinary delicacy. I was gobsmacked.

I visited this restaurant a few more times before I left Oz, always delighted by whatever I chose but completely unable to understand how this magic came to be. Over the years I have become a much better cook, gaining inspiration from far and wide with a serious penchant for Asian food. Indeed the book I have used most over the decades is Charmaine Solomon's Complete Asian Cookbook, but somehow I've never gone much past the chrystal spring rolls and the little deep fried parcels in the Vietnamese section, despite loving their lightness and genius use of fresh herbs and hot sweet chilli sauce.

I recently ought a copy of New Flavours of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham partly because I was tempted by the idea of cooking a bit more Viet food and partly because Fuchsia Dunlop, whose Szchewan food is thoroughly brilliant and has taught me so much, endorses it wholeheartedly on the cover. In truth I was hoping to learn something with this book about what underlies the cuisine rather than just have a couple of new recipes in the repertoire. Delighted to say that has happened quite comprehensively.

I had a little bit of very rare chargrilled steak leftover and I decided to make noodle salad. Browsing the book I came across bun - rice noodles with fresh herbs - which Mai Pham describes as the one dish that exemplifies just how flavours and textures are contrasted in Vietnamese cuisine.

To start, you shred lettuce and herbs, beansprouts and cucumber and mix them, without any dressing or oil or seasoning, and add them to the bottom of a noodle bowl. Cooked, cooled thin rice vermicelli is put on top. As I followed that instruction it came back to me the number of times I have ordered bun in restaurants and been confused and disappointed by the odd dry salad beneath a tangle of noodles that somehow never worked and yet is on every Vietnamese menu I've ever seen. I kept going though, and I am so glad. She describes how to create a complete bun meal, by making a hot topping for this then - and here is the the magic that transforms the dish - you make and add a series of garnishes and gently toss the whole lot together to make a most fabulous meal. I was so thrilled with the result I made bun again the following night, topping it with lemongrass chicken and again, it was bliss.

Bun with Lemongrass Chicken

The first time you make it unfamiliarity makes it seems like a faff, but in truth it is not really very complex and the result is effort rewarded a thousand times over

Serves 2

For the noodles
150g thin dried rice vermicelli
50g red or green leaf lettuce, shredded into centimetre wide strips
A handful of fresh bean sprouts, topped and tailed
About a quarter of a long cucumber, peeled, deseeded and cut into matchstick strips
2 tablespoons Asian basil leaves, cut into thirds
2 tablespoons of perilla leaves, fresh mint or coriander, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the rice vermicelli and stir gently to loosen them. Cook for about 4 minutes until the noodles are white and soft but still slightly resilient. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Gently fluff the noodles and set them aside for at least thirty minutes. The noodles should be dry and sticky before serving.

Gently toss together the lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber and herbs and divide the mixture between 2 bowls. Top each with half of the noodles. The bowls are now ready for the topping.

For the garnish
Spring onion oil
60 ml vegetable oil
5 spring onions, green parts only, cut into thin rings

Heat the vegetable oil in a small pan over a moderat heat. Add the spring onions and stir for 10 seconds. Immediately remove from the heat and transfer the oil with the spring onions to a small bowl. Place in the fridge for 10 minutes - this helps the spring onions stay green. Remove and set aside at room temperature till ready to serve. This sauce will keep for a couple of weeks in a sealed jar in the fridge.

Toasted Peanuts
3 tablespoons raw shelled peanuts, skins removed

Heat a pan over a medium heat, add the peanuts and stir for a few minutes till the peanuts are fragrant and starting to colour. Tip them into a mortar and pestle them lightly till they're roughly crushed.

Nuoc Cham - Dipping Sauce
2 Thai bird's eye chillies
1 garlic clove, sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
170ml warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
5 tablespoons fish sauce

Cut the chillies into thin rings and put them into a mortar with the garlic and sugar and pound into a coarse wet paste. Transfer to a small bowl and add the water, lime juice and fish sauce and stir well to dissolve. Garnish with more chopped chilli and shredded carrot if desired.

For the topping
1 large chicken breast, skinned and thinly sliced
1 stalk lemon grass, sliced into very thin circles
1 thumb sized knob of ginger, peeled. Cut half into very thin dice and shred the other half into thin matchsticks
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
Half red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Juice of half a lime

Mix the sliced chicken with the lemon grass and the thin ginger dice and set aside for 30 minutes to marinate. heat the oil in a wok and add the garlic, ginger shreds and red onion and stir fry for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken and toss over a high heat till it has cooked and turned white. Add the fish sauce and lime juice and toss to combine.

To serve, divide the chicken topping between the prepared noodle bowls. Garnsih each with half a tablepsoon of Spring Onion Oil, 1 tablespoon of peanuts and about 60ml of dipping sauce. Toss several times before eating.

Devour with the most enormous pleasure!

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