The Vietnamese Noodle Salad Known as Bun Bo Xao

3 Nov

Hot from the wok, a fragrant, zesty stir-fry of beef is spooned over freshly cooked room temperature rice noodles. Then come carrot, cucumber and radish slivers, and a sprinkling of crushed roasted peanuts and crispy fried shallots for good measure. A pile of sweet green herbs is at the ready. Now a generous splash of the traditional umami-laden dipping sauce called nuoc cham.

And there you have it: bun bo xao, a warm, made-to-order Vietnamese noodle salad, refreshing and satisfying for an easy lunch or supper.

For the uninitiated, this dish makes an easy introduction to Vietnamese cooking. The standard ingredients are all there: fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and hot pepper. There’s no complicated broth to make; just a quick marinade for the meat, chopping a few vegetables, washing some herbs.

But it is the nuoc cham dipping sauce that pulls it all together. The complex flavor of the sauce belies how simple it is to make. The most important element is amber-colored fish sauce, made from a long fermentation of salted anchovies.

Not all fish sauce is created equal. Connoisseurs agree that Vietnam makes fish sauce of the highest quality, and many swear by the Red Boat brand, which is an “extra virgin” first pressing from Phu Quoc island with a pure light flavor and no additives. Always read the label carefully when buying fish sauce. Cheaper brands often add fructose and other seasonings along with stabilizers or preservatives. The best fish sauce really doesn’t taste fishy at all.

The ingredients list for our bun bo xao is a bit on the long side, but fear not. If you’re organized and have everything ready when you begin to cook, all will be well, and the dish will come together in 10 minutes.

The majority of the work goes into the prep. It’s O.K. to julienne the vegetables in advance, several hours ahead or the even the day before. But do try to find the freshest herb sprigs available. You’ll want a mixture of tender cilantro, fragrant basils, mint, dill, sawtooth coriander and small perilla (shiso) leaves.

Savory rice noodles like these can become part of your salad repertory year-round. The flavors are clean, bright and restorative. You might think of Vietnamese food as summery fare, but I found myself craving it on a recent warm autumn day.

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