In Vietnam, staple herbs like rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), tiá tô (Vietnamese perilla), ngò gai (sawtooth coriander) and kinh giới (Vietnamese balm/lemon mint) are inseparable from any dish.
Alongside hearty vegetables, land meat or seafood and a little oil, they form the basis of a Vietnamese salad - known as gỏi in the south and nộm in the north.
But gỏi or nộm is more than that. Gỏi also balances dương (vital heat) and âm (passive fluid) principles. In this dynamic, it's not about balancing the physical temperature of the salad, but its metaphysical one.
Ingredients like beef and ginger, and cooking methods like frying, are considered to heat the body. Tastes that are bitter (like bittermelon) and cooking modes like steaming are known to cool the body. It's believed that if you eat a balance of this metaphysical hot and cold food, you reach an equilibrium that promotes good health.
However, at the heart of every umami, tangy Vietnamese salad, is the iconic salty fermented fish sauce that we know as nước mắm. Nước mắm is a by-product of fermented anchovies, mackerel and scabbard fish. Together with rice and herbs, nước mắm binds northern, central and southern Vietnamese cooking-styles in one bowl.
"At the heart of every umami, tangy Vietnamese salad, is the iconic salty fermented fish sauce that we know as nước mắm."
While Thai and Vietnamese cuisines have independent heritages, they both incorporate five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, salty and sour; and a texture profile that's silky, soft, chewy, crispy and crunchy.
Martin Boetz, chef and owner of catering business Cooks Shed, and the founder of since-closed Thai restaurant Longrain in Sydney, explains: "Salads are made up of layered flavours and textures. For example, for an element of crunch and texture peanuts, fermented crab, dried shrimp or deep fried shallots can be used. For something soft, green mangoes or green papaya can be used."
Boetz says the main flavours in his salads are sweet, sour and salty. "Heat can be added as well, depending on the person's palette. You can pound hot chilli to a paste with lime juice and sugar to balance it out."
He emphasises the importance of balance and seasoning. "Play with it, the small addition of sugar to a dressing can really balance it out, but take extra care when adding salt because it is hard to retrieve it once it is oversalted."
However, if there's too much chilli, you can temper it with lime, fish sauce and dressings like som tum, which include tamarind.
Make your own Vietnamese salad such as a gỏi đu đủ (green papaya salad). Assemble mild green papaya, shredded carrots, green herbs and crispy cabbage. Toss it with a tangy nước chấm dressing made of nước mắm, water, garlic, sugar, chilli and lime juice. Add crunchy elements, like crushed peanuts or prawn crackers, for punch, You can also try a mix of soft-poached prawns, cucumber matchsticks, coriander, tapioca noodles, butter lettuce and bean sprouts together and splash nước chấm and creamy coconut milk on top.
"The salads that I make are herbaceous," says Boetz. It works well with other ingredients when layering flavours and textures." He likes using finely shredded herbs such as flat-leaf coriander or sawtooth. In a grilled pork salad, he uses Vietnamese mint, which gives it a peppery flavour.
"I like mixing it up by putting fresh lychees, pineapples or roasting glutinous rice on a wok to caramelise it," he adds. "When the rice is toasted all the way through and grinded, it's ready. This adds a nutty flavour to the end of a salad."
A Vietnamese salad is simple to prepare and it's not hard to make, but the orchestra of flavours and textures, combined with the philosophies of dương and âm, create a dramatic result. It forms part of a long-standing culinary heritage of which Vietnamese people are proud.
This is based on a Saigon street dish called banh tam bi, a fabulous mix of thick, chewy rice and tapioca noodles, crunchy vegetables and peanuts, aromatic fresh herbs and fine shreds of pork and/or pork skin. The whole thing is served drenched in slightly sweet nuoc cham and warmed, thick coconut milk and it is beyond delicious. Here’s a vegetarian approximation that’s easy-peasy; there’s actually no cooking, as such.