Tag Archives: Vietnamese food

thang long’s duck & cabbage salad

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.

Vietnamese Duck & Cabbage Salad (adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen)
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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).

vietnamese pork-stuffed tofu with tomato sauce

“I have always thought about/ Staying here and going out/ Tonight I should have stayed at home/ Playing with my pleasure zone”  -New Order, The Perfect Kiss

plated tofu 1

I never thought this day would come, but I have to admit that I’ve started to see the light as far as being an early riser on the weekends.  I woke up around 8:30 this past Saturday morning, as I have been wont to do lately, blissfully clear-headed and ready to take advantage of the day.  I had turned down a couple offers to go out the night before, preferring to have a mellow evening at home, and was feeling pretty self-satisfied as the day lay before me like a plate of noodles waiting to be sauced.

tofu on plate verticalAs I drank my coffee, I began to contemplate why I have a more “take it or leave it” attitude towards going out these days, despite still being single and (relatively) unencumbered.  It’s not that I don’t like to be social- quite the opposite, in fact.  But these days, I’d much rather be social by going to a barbecue or having a few friends over for dinner than staying out all hours.  It’s not that I don’t have the energy; more that I’ve lost the drive.

It occurred to me that a big part of the attraction for people to go out and hit the bars or stay out late can be summed up in one word: possibility.  The possibility that you’ll meet someone new, experience something new, etc.  It’s a big pull when you’re younger and are in a hurry to get as much living under your belt as you can.  But I realized that when you’re perfectly content with what (and who) you have, you lose that “seeking” instinct (or at least, it gets redirected).

Nowadays for example, perhaps the kitchen is your “pleasure zone”, and as-yet-untried recipes your possibilities.  And maybe you’d enjoy nothing more than to stay in and spend an entire evening making a somewhat fiddly dish like, let’s say, Vietnamese stuffed tofu, while your significant other sits in the other room working on the computer, and you bounce around the kitchen with the Pandora station set to New Order.

Vietnamese Pork-Stuffed Tofu with Tomato Sauce (recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen) printer-friendly version

plated tofu 2 squareI bought this book a couple months ago, but didn’t know where to begin- everything sounded so good!   The book’s photo of these little pork-filled tofu squares caught my eye, and  I figured they were as good a starting point as any.  I was also intrigued by the tomato sauce since I had never had anything like that in any Vietnamese restaurants.  The assembly is a little time-consuming but not overly difficult, and as the author points out, they make good leftovers when heated up in the toaster oven.

For the tofu squares:
a 1-lb block of medium firm (“regular”) tofu
1/3 lb ground pork, coarsely chopped to loosen
1 scallion, white and light green parts, finely chopped
2 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted, stemmed, and finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbs fish sauce
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tsp cold water
canola or other neutral oil for panfrying

For the sauce:
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes, pulsed briefly in the food processor (or drain, reserving juice, and finely chop on a cutting board) *
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs fish sauce

*The author calls for 1 1/2 cups peeled, seeded and finely chopped ripe tomatoes.  If you have access to good tomatoes, feel free to use them in place of the canned.


Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine pork, scallion, mushroom, egg, fish sauce, pepper and cornstarch mixture and beat vigorously with a fork until well blended.  Set aside.

pork filling in bowl 2Prepare the tofu: Drain the tofu and cut into 1/2 inch thick pieces each about 2 1/4 inches square.  You may have to cut the tofu in half crosswise.  There will be 8, 10, or 12 pieces depending on the size and shape of the block.  Lay a piece flat on your work surface and cut a horizontal slit in it, stopping 1/2 to 1/4 inch shy of the opposite side to avoid splitting the piece in half.  Make sure the cut is equally deep on both sides.  Repeat with the remaining pieces.  (I laid my tofu on paper towel and lightly pressed the squares to get out excess water before stuffing them.)

tofu on plate horizontalStuff the tofu: Hold a piece of tofu in one hand and use the other hand to open it up carefully like a tiny book.  Use a knife or small spatula to spread a layer of filling about 1/4 inch thick on one side (I filled mine a little thicker than this, and still had leftover filling.)  Lower the top flap and press the filling gently into place.  Don’t worry if the tofu tears a little.  As you work, place the stuffed tofu squares on a double layer of paper towel to absorb excess water.

tofu in panFry the tofu:  Preheat the oven to 175 or 200 for keeping the tofu squares hot once they are fried.  Pour enough oil in a nonstick skillet to film the bottom (about 4 tbs) and heat over medium heat.  Panfry the tofu in two batches, frying for 4-6 minutes or until the bottom is golden brown.  Carefully flip the tofu and fry the second side for another 4-6 minutes, or until golden brown and the filling is cooked.  Transfer the cooked tofu to a plate or cookie sheet and place in the oven while you fry the second batch. (I lined a cookie sheet with paper towel to absorb some of the oil.)  Repeat with the remaining tofu pieces.

Make the sauce:  Lower the heat slightly and pour off all but 2 tbs of oil from the pan.  Add the garlic to the pan and saute for about 15 seconds or until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes and fish sauce, bring to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes to blend the flavors.  When the sauce has thickened slightly, taste and season with a little salt to deepen the flavor and a little sugar to balance the acidity.

To serve, spoon the sauce onto a platter (or plate individually) and place the tofu squares on top.