Have you ever had the experience of eating a dish once and finding it burning into your brain? As if there was a reserved area, a certain tabula rasa of neurons just waiting to be inscribed with this new combination of flavors? That’s how I felt when I first tried this salad at Eric Banh’s Ba Bar, one of our favorite Seattle restaurants. This general style of cabbage salad (gói) is fairly common, but what makes the Ba Bar version great is copious quantities of meticulously fried, ridiculously savory shallots playing against the fresh herbs and crunchy cabbage.
I’d had in mind to attempt my own version, but my shallots for other Vietnamese dishes had never come out so perfect. Usually some were carbonized while others were still undercooked. I was frying something completely different at ChefSteps the other day when Grant Crilly bought me a clue. Generally, when I think of deep frying I automatically assume I want to be in the neighborhood of 360 F / 182 C. That is great for putting a nice crust on a fritter, for example, or for the final frying of French fries. What Grant pointed out was that if you are trying to fry something all the way through, a much lower temperature, on the order of 260 F / 126 C works better.
For example, think about these shallots, or, say, croutons or fried capers. You want them to be completely crisp, and that can only happen if you cook all the water out of them. If you dump them in super-hot oil, the crust will burn long before the water leaves the inside. So obvious once you realize it, but it was a total head-slapper for me.
A delightful side effect of frying shallots this way is that you’ll end up with a bunch of shallot-flavored oil. You can use that in salad dressings for several days afterwards. It has a subtle, warming flavor. If I remember right, Eric also uses it to garnish congee.
Ideally for this salad you would have a mix of Vietnamese herbs. My friend Andrea Nguyen has a nice guide to them. I think the Ba Bar version has a lot of rau ram, but if you can’t find that, you’ll have to make do with mint and cilantro. Tia to (aka shiso, aka perilla) would also be great. If you have access to a Vietnamese grocery, just go and buy one of each of the herbs they sell – you’ll discover a bunch of intense new flavors to fall in love with.
The way I’ve written this, it is meant to be an appetizer or side-dish salad; there is just a small amount of tofu as more of a textural element. If you wanted to make in into something more like an entree salad, you could use a lot more pan-fried tofu, about 4 to 6 ounces per person; I’d probably include garlic and lemongrass for the last couple minutes of frying.
- 5 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 3 ounces extra-firm tofu (one of those seasoned and baked tofus can work as well), 1/4" dice
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 small head green cabbage, cored, thinly shredded and refrigerated
- 2 big, packed handfuls mixed Vietnamese herbs - rau ram, mint, cilantro, etc. - see above
- 2 tablespoons lime juice or rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce - use a gluten free variety if needed
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup peanuts, toasted and lightly crushed
- Bring a small pot with enough oil to completely cover the shallots up to a low frying temperature, about 260 F / 126 C. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally until deeply golden brown. This will take a very long time - around 45 minutes. Keep the temperature very low. You can speed the process up a little by using more oil in a larger pot. For a long time it will seem like nothing much is happening, then they will start to slowly brown. Keep the temperature low, and pay more attention for the last few minutes.
- When the shallots are done, drain them but reserve the delicious oil. Spread the shallots out on paper towels. As they cool, they will become shatteringly crispy.
- Pan-fry the tofu in a small amount of oil until nicely browned. Transfer to paper towels and season.
- In a small bowl, stir together the lime juice, sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the reserved shallot oil. Don't worry about getting it emulsified.
- Put the cabbage in a mixing bowl. Add half of the shallots, the tofu, and all of the herbs, tearing them and lightly bruising the leaves to release flavor. Add the dressing a little at a time, tossing as you go, until the cabbage is well dressed but not drenched. Taste and adjust seasoning - it may need more salt.
- To serve, transfer the salad to platter. Garnish with the remaining fried shallots and peanuts.