Like banh mi sandwiches, southern Viet rice noodle salad bowls are adaptable and great for healthful, impromptu meals. Often categorized at restaurants as rice vermicelli bowls or bún (the name of the noodles), they’re built on this blueprint: A large bowl filled with ribbons of lettuce and a thin, crunchy vegetable for texture; fresh herbs for pungency; and slippery rice noodles to convey flavors. You get to choose the toppings, which are inevitably garnished with roasted peanuts. A fancy bowl often has pickled radish and carrot for color and crunch, plus fried shallots for extra richness (canned fried onions are my lazy-day sub). You dress the bowl with nước chấm dipping sauce, toss it with chopsticks (or a fork) and spoon, and then dive in.
To quickly make your own, keep some dried noodles on hand as well as a jar of nước chấm sauce base, washed herbs and lettuce or baby lettuce mix, and roasted nuts. All that’s left is the main attraction. Following is a versatile marinade for beef, pork, and chicken skewers. In Notes, you’ll find more ideas to fuel your creativity.
To grill the meat, you will need skewers. With 6-inch skewers, you’ll fill eight to ten of them; with 10-inch ones, you’ll need four or five skewers.
3 garlic cloves, chopped
½ cup coarsely chopped shallot or yellow onion
¼ teaspoon plus ⅛ teaspoon recently ground black pepper
½ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1½ tablespoons granulated sugar, or 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon molasses, dark amber honey, or Caramel Sauce (this page)
1½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1½ tablespoons canola or other neutral oil, plus more for grilling
1¼ pounds well-marbled beefsteak (such as tri-tip or New York strip steak), boneless pork shoulder, boneless country-style pork ribs, or boneless, skinless chicken thigh
One 6- to 8-ounce package small dried round rice noodles (maifun), or one 10- to 12-ounce package dried rice capellini or thin spaghetti (see this page)
1 cup Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce (this page)
⅔ cup unsalted roasted peanuts or cashew pieces, coarsely chopped if large
¼ cup fried onions or shallots (optional)
4 cups baby lettuce mix or leaves of soft-leaf lettuce (such as butter, Boston, or green leaf), cut into narrow ribbons, with spines intact
3 or 4 handfuls bean sprouts, or 1 Persian cucumber, shaved with a vegetable peeler into thin strips, or both
½ cup hand-torn fresh cilantro leaves and tender tops
½ cup hand-torn fresh mint leaves, basil leaves, or dill fronds, or a combination
½ to ¾ cup Any Day Viet Pickle (this page; optional, but encouraged for extra dimension)
If using wooden skewers and intending to cook over a live fire, soak them in hot water for twenty minutes.
To make the marinade In a small food processor, combine the garlic, shallot, pepper, five-spice powder, sugar, molasses, fish sauce, soy sauce, and canola oil, then whirl into a slightly coarse, liquid marinade. (Or, pound the garlic, shallot, and sugar with a mortar and pestle and mix in the other ingredients.) Transfer the marinade to a large bowl.
If using beef or pork, cut the meat across the grain into strips about 1 inch wide, three inches long, and a scant ¼ inch thick. If using chicken, cut each thigh crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips; if a thigh is super-thick on one end, cut one or two gashes there to even out the thickness before cutting the strips. Add to the marinade, and massage to coat well.
Thread the meat onto the skewers, covering most of each skewer. For succulence, give each loaded skewer a gentle squeeze to ensure that the meat hugs the skewer. Set on a plate, cover, and let marinate at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pot of unsalted water, boil the noodles until tender; the cooking time depends on the noodle and brand. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water, and set aside to drain well. Put the dipping sauce in a serving bowl. Set the nuts and fried onions (if using) near the stove, this recipe is so yummy.