In cool Vietnamese noodle salads, the right rice noodle is key

Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, explains how to make cool Vietnamese noodle salads.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Can you give us the basics of Vietnamese salads?

Andrea Nguyen
Andrea Nguyen

Andrea Nguyen: This time of the year is a great time to make cool noodle salads; the operative word here is "cool" noodle. The noodle is a little rice noodle called bun (we pronounce it "boon"). They're these little, round, rice vermicelli noodles.

You boil them up in water like a regular pasta for maybe 3-5 minutes until they're chewy and tender. Drain them, flush them with water, and let them sit there and cool. They're going to get a little sticky and firm up. Then you can let them sit there for hours while you're getting everything else ready.

You can put whatever you want on them. We make a salad mixture of lettuce and different kinds of herbs. Vary it. Cilantro, mint, whatever herbs you have growing in your garden -- just slice them up and make a mixture of chopped greens and herbs; that's the foundation. Got a little cucumber? Throw it in there. A little carrot or daikon? Throw it in there too.

Put your noodles on top.

Then, this is where the fun part is, the protein aspect. If you have leftover grilled food, cut it up into little slices -- lamb is great, pork, beef, grill a little shrimp -- and put it on there. Chicken? Fabulous.

If you want, add chopped, roasted, unsalted peanuts. The sauce for the dressing is the ubiquitous Vietnamese nuoc cham, which is fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chile; you put that on the side.

What I like to do is set it all up and let people go at it and make their own bowl. You can even craft this out of leftover stir-fry and put it on top. My family ate this for Sunday morning breakfasts. We would skip the donuts in the church hall, and we would go home and make these kinds of salads. They're perfect for summer.

LRK: Do you ever soak your noodles? I've used the technique where you just pour very hot water over the noodles and let them soak. Am I violating a rule by doing that?

AN: One of the things that I've come across when people think about these noodles is that they sometimes use super-fine rice noodles that are almost hair-like; that is the type of noodle where you can just boil water over. What you sometimes also come across is people using cellophane or glass noodles instead of the rice noodle.

LRK: Those are the ones that are clear.

AN: Exactly. Technically, you only use them in certain rice paper rolls. It's the white rice noodle that you use. You can't just pour hot water over them. Sorry, you've got to boil them.

LRK: After you've boiled these noodles, do you have to rinse them under water, or do you just drain them off?

AN: You want to flush them with a lot of cold water because there's residual starch that will get the noodles clumped together in the colander. One of the things that I learned from my mother that I still do today is I have the colander in the sink, and I put an inverted rice bowl or glass in the center in the bottom of the colander. You pour your noodles in, and that way the noodles form around the bowl or the glass and they don't clump way at the bottom of the colander. They separate a lot easier.

LRK: Anything can really go into this salad, but the layering is generally the greens go on the bottom of the bowl, then the noodles go on, then whatever the proteins might be, then some herbs on top of that and nuts? Is that the basic formation?

AN: Yes. If you wanted to have some fun, you could put some rice papers out, and people could roll them up -- you could have a "roll-your-own" bar.

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