In the early 60’s the streets of Vientiane were flooded with Vietnamese refugees escaping American bombs. The refugees took to the streets selling food from their home country. Some vendors pushed carts laden with freshly cooked food, while others balanced a long bamboo pole across one shoulder, two round baskets at either end, swaying left and right seemingly weightless. All kinds of food paraded through the streets this way, bells ringing, horns blowing and hawkers shouting their offerings, all vying for attention.
There were exotic sweet and savory morsels wrapped in banana leaves…chunks of ripe papaya and sugar cane piled high over blocks of ice…sticky rice with mangoes …sticky rice with ice cream…fresh and fried spring rolls…Warm and cold salads…iced coffee laced with sweet condensed milk…Silken tofu in soothing ginger syrup… and the list goes on.
It was in this environment of casual eating that I discovered Vietnamese food, and became forever enamored with street food. I was especially fond of bo boon, a one dish meal with rice noodles mixed with salad greens, tossed in a spicy fish sauce, topped with warm curried beef, and sprinkled with peanuts. This is my version of that dish from long ago. It's comfort food in our family and I make it most often in the summer when my garden overflows with all kinds of greens that can go into this salad. It's the ultimate street food and it takes me home.
Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad
1 lb Japanese somen noodles
1 – 1 ½ lb flank steak, cut in half length wise, thinly sliced across the grain
1 large onion, cut in half length wise, thinly sliced
3 TBS canola oil
2 TBS fish sauce
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 tsp curry powder
Fresh ground black pepper
12 lettuce leaves, coarsely shredded
1 cup mint leaaves, roughly chopped
1 cup coriander, roughly chopped
I medium cucumber, lightly peeled, cut in half lengthwise, thinly sliced into half moons
2 cups bean sprouts
Spicy Fish Sauce (recipe below)
2/3 cup coarsely ground dry roasted peanuts.
Chili peppers for garnish, if you like heat
Cook somen noodles in salted boiling waterfor 2-3 minutes. Strain and rinse with cold water. Drain well and put in a platter, ccover with plastic wrap until ready to use.
Combine beef with fish sauce, 2 tsp curry powder and black pepper in a bowl and marinate until ready to use.
In a large salad bowl combine lettuce, mint, coriander, cucumbers and bean sprouts, toss gently. Divide vegetables among 4 to 6 pasta bowls. Top the vegetables with a handful of noodles, set aside until ready to use. Everything up to this point can be made three hours ahead.
When ready to serve, heat oil, over medium heat, in a large skillet. Add onions and garlic, stir fry until fragrant and onion is tender. Add the rest of curry powder and stir fry another minute. Add the beef and stir fry over high heat one to two minutes, to your desired doneness. I like mine a little pink in the middle. Divide beef among the bowls of noodles. Top each with ground peanuts. Pass the fish sauce at the table. Diners should add a generous amount of fish sauce to their bowl and toss everything together, adding sauce and hot pepper to taste.
4 to 6 servings.
Spicy Fish Sauce with Peanuts
½ hot water
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup fish sauce
1/8 cup rice wine vinegar
2 TBS dry roasted peanuts , ground
Hot chiles to taste, thinly sliced
Mix all ingredients, except peanuts and chiles, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Garnish with peanuts and chiles before serving. Makes 1 ¼ cup.