Although I’m an adventurous eater and love all kinds of Asian foods, it hasn’t been until relatively recently (the last 5 years or so) that I discovered how much I love Vietnamese food. Sad, because out of all the types of Asian cuisines I’ve tried, Vietnamese cooking calls out to me the most, with its pungent flavors of fish sauce, chilies, lime and fresh herbs. It’s ironic because although I lived in France, where there is a large Vietnamese population, my experience was limited to snacking on the occasional nem (fresh roll), which you could buy at the counter in many Vietnamese-owned groceries.
Here in Metro Detroit, there is also a significant Vietnamese population in the Madison Heights area (see this post about some of the Asian specialty stores in that area). A couple years ago Marvin turned me on to a restaurant on John R just north of 11 Mile Rd. called Thang Long *insert immature jokes here… you know you want to* and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s not much to look at when you walk in- the decor is all rose-colored and clearly hasn’t been updated since the early ’80s; the vinyl seats are torn in places. There’s a long table in the middle of the restaurant where the family congregates to do food prep, wrap silverware, etc. But none of that matters because when you go to Thang Long, you go for the food.
I’ve tried several dishes at Thang Long, but my favorite is the Duck & Cabbage salad. Cabbage is shredded and doused with a dressing of vinegar, fish sauce, chilies and garlic; there are slices of red bell pepper, mint and basil leaves, a sprinkling of peanuts, and best of all, pieces of shredded duck breast. Last year I acquired Andrea Nguyen’s book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (check out this post for a great stuffed tofu recipe from that book), and happily it contained a recipe for a very similar salad that used poached chicken breast in place of the duck. I made a batch and was delighted to find that, with just a little tweaking, I could now make my beloved duck salad at home. Best of all, it’s an incredibly easy recipe AND super healthy- there’s not even any oil in the salad dressing. The salad is great when it’s first made, but I also like it after it “marinates” in the dressing and the cabbage softens a bit. Either way, you’ll be glad it makes a big batch because it’s addictive and easy to eat huge portions!
Photo notes: The first photo is of the salad I made at home with chicken, following the original recipe without any modifications. The photo of the salad with the herbs and red pepper is the actual duck salad at Thang Long (hence the crappy lighting). The things on the side of the plate are delicious fried shrimp chips.
If you’re looking for a more weekday version of this dish, this salad works just as well with chicken rather than duck. I’m not usually a fan of the rather flavorless white chicken breast meat available in most stores (use Amish or organic if possible!), but the salad has so much flavor of its own that it works out. For the chilies, in a pinch you can do what I did and use dried bird’s eye chilies; just pour a small amount of very hot water over them and let them soak a bit before using. The items marked “optional” are ingredients that Thang Long uses in their salad that were not included in Ms. Nguyen’s recipe.
For the salad:
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 bone-in duck or chicken breast (both sides)
1 small red onion or two shallots, thinly sliced
½ to ¾ cup distilled white vinegar
1 small head green cabbage, about 1 lb, quartered through the stem end, cored, and cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide ribbons
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded (I use the large holes of a box grater)
a good handful of cilantro, finely chopped (about 2-3 Tbs)
¼ of a red bell pepper, thinly sliced (optional)
2-3 sprigs mint leaves (optional)
2-3 sprigs basil (optional)
2-3 Tbs finely chopped unsalted peanuts (optional)
For the dressing:
1-2 Thai or serrano (red) chilies, chopped (see notes)
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ tsp sugar
pinch of salt
3 Tbs fish sauce
6 Tbs unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
Choose a lidded saucepan just large enough to hold the meat. Fill half-full with water and the 1 Tbs fish sauce, and bring to a rolling boil. Drop in the duck or chicken breasts. When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly; let sit undisturbed for 30-40 minutes. If you’re at all nervous about undercooked meat, use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat has reached 160°. (Alternately, if time is not an issue, you can cook the meat in a slow cooker on low for a couple hours; folks on Serious Eats claim they get a moister result this way.)
Meanwhile, place the cabbage, carrot, cilantro and red bell pepper (if using) in a large bowl. Put the onion or shallots in a small bowl and add the white vinegar just to cover (the vinegar tames the onion’s bite). Let sit for 15 minutes. Drain well and add to the cabbage. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the meat by hand along the grain; when cool, add to the bowl of cabbage.
Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, chilies, sugar and salt until they form a fragrant orange-red paste. Scrape the paste into a small bowl and add the rice vinegar and fish sauce, stirring to dissolve and combine.
Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss well to combine. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed, balancing the sour, salty, sweet and spicy. Transfer to a serving plate, leaving behind any unabsorbed dressing. Garnish with the herb sprigs and the peanuts, if using (or leave on the side for your guests to add as desired).