Have you ever had the experience of eating a dish once and finding it burning into your brain? As if there was a reserved area, a certain tabula rasa of neurons just waiting to be inscribed with this new combination of flavors? That’s how I felt when I first tried this salad at Eric Banh’s Ba Bar, one of our favorite Seattle restaurants. This general style of cabbage salad (gói) is fairly common, but what makes the Ba Bar version great is copious quantities of meticulously fried, ridiculously savory shallots playing against the fresh herbs and crunchy cabbage.
I’d had in mind to attempt my own version, but my shallots for other Vietnamese dishes had never come out so perfect. Usually some were carbonized while others were still undercooked. I was frying something completely different at ChefSteps the other day when Grant Crilly bought me a clue. Generally, when I think of deep frying I automatically assume I want to be in the neighborhood of 360 F / 182 C. That is great for putting a nice crust on a fritter, for example, or for the final frying of French fries. What Grant pointed out was that if you are trying to fry something all the way through, a much lower temperature, on the order of 260 F / 126 C works better.
For example, think about these shallots, or, say, croutons or fried capers. You want them to be completely crisp, and that can only happen if you cook all the water out of them. If you dump them in super-hot oil, the crust will burn long before the water leaves the inside. So obvious once you realize it, but it was a total head-slapper for me.
A delightful side effect of frying shallots this way is that you’ll end up with a bunch of shallot-flavored oil. You can use that in salad dressings for several days afterwards. It has a subtle, warming flavor. If I remember right, Eric also uses it to garnish congee.
Ideally for this salad you would have a mix of Vietnamese herbs. My friend Andrea Nguyen has a nice guide to them. I think the Ba Bar version has a lot of rau ram, but if you can’t find that, you’ll have to make do with mint and cilantro. Tia to (aka shiso, aka perilla) would also be great. If you have access to a Vietnamese grocery, just go and buy one of each of the herbs they sell – you’ll discover a bunch of intense new flavors to fall in love with.
The way I’ve written this, it is meant to be an appetizer or side-dish salad; there is just a small amount of tofu as more of a textural element. If you wanted to make in into something more like an entree salad, you could use a lot more pan-fried tofu, about 4 to 6 ounces per person; I’d probably include garlic and lemongrass for the last couple minutes of frying.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
This content was originally published here.