As Thanksgiving approaches and most food talk is of turkey and gravy and stuffing and pie, I find myself craving lighter and brighter flavors. We had this salad recently and couldn't stop thinking about it and wanting more afterwards. It's like hitting the reset button on your tastebuds. It's fresh and crunchy with very bright, refreshing and incredibly addictive flavors.
So what's in it? You start with crispy, crunchy Napa cabbage. I'm really not a big cabbage or cole slaw eater, but the light, curly texture of Napa cabbage is the perfect vehicle for this salad. You shave the Napa cabbage easily with a sharp knife, then add toasted coconut (the big shavings, not the little withered and dried up bagged stuff that's been on the grocery store shelves for who knows how long), add some toasted nuts (the original had peanuts, we used cashews), a lot of fresh ginger in julienned sticks so you can bite into it — texture is everything here, you don't want ginger slush, fried, crunchy garlic, sesame seeds, tiny bits of a chopped jalapeño, and the secret ingredient that brings it all together... dried shrimp. Sounds weird, I know. I've had crunchy little dried shrimp bits in all kinds of Asian food, but I got intimidated when trying to buy some at the Asian market myself. I'd like to know a little more about where they come from and whether they're full of chemicals that I don't want to be eating. So we made it the first time without the dried shrimp. It was good, but not singing in the streets spectacular. A whole dimension of flavor was missing and it was the shrimp.
Then something wonderful happened. We happened to be eating dinner at our favorite Vietnamese cafe, Tam Deli, and talking to one of the owners, Tran. I love hearing her cooking tips. She mentioned that she dries her own shrimp for the restaurant. That stuck with me. I know the care she takes with everything she makes. So a few days later, we went back and asked if we could buy some of the dried shrimp from her next batch. What she delivered was gorgeous, fresh, shredded shrimp. It was soft and fluffy like peach snow. I tossed it around in a dry skillet for a few minutes to crisp it up and it was amazing in the salad. It added the savory but undefinable flavor the salad needed.
This salad is very easy, but takes a few minutes of prep. You need to toast the nuts and coconut and fry the garlic into little crunchy chips. But each of these steps can be done in the same skillet or wok. I'm ballparking the quantities here. You can put more or less of any of these ingredients, just don't skip any.
I dare you to try this and not get hooked. I could seriously eat this several times a week. And it's just the thing to balance out all that heavy turkey and stuffing coming your way next week.
Gluten-free note: I checked with the folks at Squid Brand fish sauce in Singapore and they assured me that their fish sauce is gluten-free.
Burmese Crunchy Ginger Salad
half a head of Napa cabbage
one bunch cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup julienned ginger
3/4 cup roasted and salted cashews or peanuts, chopped
3/4 cup coconut flakes
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into the thinnest slices you can cut
1/4 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup dried shrimp
1 jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, like safflower
juice of 2 limes
1-2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
2-3 teaspoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons honey (or more to taste)
3 tablespoons garlic safflower oil (from frying the garlic chips)
Hold a head of Napa cabbage horizontally on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut thin shavings straight down and it will make beautiful, fine, crunchy shreds. Put these in a large serving bowl.
In a dry skillet, toast the coconut flakes over low to medium-low heat, stirring continuously. Don't walk away. Stay present and keep stirring and letting it toast slowly until it's a golden brown. This will take several minutes but will be well worth it. The flavor and texture it brings out is amazing. Set aside in a bowl or on a plate to cool.
Do the same with the sesame seeds and dried shrimp, just to crisp them up.
Last, pour 3 tablespoons oil into the pan and add the garlic slices. Cook them in the oil over medium-low heat until they turn golden. This will happen quickly so stay with them. Remove them to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain (like you would with bacon). Pat the excess oil off with another paper towel and let them sit. They'll crisp as they dry.
Combine the dressing ingredients in a bowl with the oil from the garlic. Whisk it all together and taste. Add more honey or fish sauce as needed for more sweetness or saltiness.
Combine all of the salad ingredients in either a composed salad or just toss it all together well. Drizzle with the dressing just before serving.
Adapted from The Providers.