I don’t usually associate Paris with (good) Asian food (sorry). But while researching this article on non-French spots in Paris, I remembered how much I love a Vietnamese-inspired noodle salad that’s beloved in the City of Light. The French call it bò bún (pronounced “bo boon”), though in Vietnam and elsewhere the same dish is named bún bò. It’s a summery salad of rice noodles that have been tossed with a light dressing of fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice, and topped with fresh herbs, chopped peanuts, slivered vegetables, sautéed lemongrass-scented beef, and a crispy pork spring roll (called nem in French, and chá giò in Vietnamese).
Thanks to a new wave of hotspots in the Marais and Canal Saint-Martin, bò bún is a perennial favorite among Parisian hipsters. (One of my favorites is at Le Petit Cambodge, which is reopen again after being targeted in the terrorist attacks of November 2015.) But outside of France, the dish is more elusive – and so I was excited to cook my own vegetarian version, based on recipes from my friend Patricia Tanumihardja’s new cookbook, Farm to Table Asian Secrets.
Pat and I met a few years ago when we were both brand-new authors, and she quickly became one of my favorite Asian food writers. Born in Indonesia, she grew up in Singapore, (ie Asian food mecca), and is now based in Washington, DC, where she writes a blog, Pickles and Tea, for the Smithsonian.
If, like me, you suffer from farmer’s market paralysis – unwilling to spend big bucks at the local produce stand because you don’t really feel like cooking any of that stuff – Pat’s new book, Farm to Table Asian Secrets: Vegan and Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season, will provide a wealth of inspiration. Organized by season, the recipes call for common American or European vegetables – like fennel, crookneck squash, and parsnips – giving them a distinct Asian spin. For example, Pat’s tosses fiddlehead ferns (or Swiss chard) with sesame sauce. She tucks celery root into spring rolls, and laces red curry with fava beans (in the spring), or kabocha squash (in the autumn). The result is a celebration of local and seasonal produce with, as Pat says, “the Asian spark.”
The book has a recipe for Vietnamese noodle salad bowls, topped with shiitake mushrooms, broiled tofu, and Pat’s own vegan “fish” sauce (which is flavored with kombu). But I was craving the hot-cold combination of bò bún, which mixes fresh herbs and vegetables with slippery noodles and stir-fried lemongrass beef and onions – so I decided to mix-and-match a few recipes from the book and create my own. In lieu of lemongrass beef, I made Pat’s Thai basil zucchini, which has similar flavor notes – sweet, savory, spicy, and aromatic. I mixed up a dipping sauce of fish sauce, lime juice, water, and sugar – and I abstemiously substituted the book’s broiled tofu for a spring roll. Sprigs of fresh cilantro, mint, crushed peanuts, and slivered carrots topped the dish (and if you’re feeling fancy, the book has a recipe for quick-pickling the latter).
I admit this meal combines several elements, and they all took a little more time than I had initially anticipated. But the result was fresh, light, and – with that glorious hint of mint – very springy. As the days grow warmer, and the farmers market comes back to life again, I look forward to using this wonderful book more and more.
Note: This recipe is almost completely vegan – except I used fish sauce. If you’d like to make your own vegan fish sauce, Viet World Kitchen has a recipe here, which is similar to the one in Pat’s book.
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup water
Noodles and garnishes
8 oz rice noodles
Handful of fresh cilantro and mint leaves
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, crushed
1 carrot, cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon warm water
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Thai basil zucchini
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 cup sliced shallots
1.5 lbs zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into triangles
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
2 to 3 Thai chilies, chopped (or to taste)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
To prepare the Sauce, stir together the lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, and water in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust seasonings.
To cook the rice noodles, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the noodles and cook until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold running water until the noodles are cool. Drain well in a colander and set aside for up to 2 hours at room temperature.
To prepare the Broiled Tofu, drain the tofu by placing it between two rimmed plates. Carefully place a heavy weight on top – I used a container of rice and a can of tomatoes – and allow to drain for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together the marinade ingredients in a bowl. Arrange the oven rack at the highest level. Preheat the oven’s broiler to high. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the drained tofu and pat it dry with paper towels. Cut the block of tofu into 16 triangles. Arrange the tofu pieces on the baking sheet and spoon marinade over each one, on both sides. Broil the tofu until golden and crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the tofu and broil for 2 to 3 more minutes, until seared and golden.
To prepare the Thai Basil Zucchini, swirl the oil in a large wok or skillet set over medium heat. When the oil shimmers, add the garlic and shallots, cooking until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Raise the heat to high and add the zucchini and salt. Stir to combine, and cook until the zucchini is lightly browned and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes, covering the pan if necessary. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the chilies, soy sauce, and sugar, stirring to combine. Stir in the basil and mint. Cook until the basil is wilted and fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
To prepare the Noodle Salad, divide the noodles between 2 or 3 shallow pasta bowls. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of dipping sauce of the noodles and toss to combine. Reserve the rest of the sauce to serve at the table. Top the noodles with the piping hot zucchini, mint and cilantro, slivered carrots, peanuts, and 2 slices of broiled tofu. Serve, passing the additional sauce at the table.