Asian salads: Crisp, cool and dressed to thrill

Posted: August 02, 2007

I eat lighter by instinct during the hotter summer months, but that swelter isn't always kind to delicate salad greens.

So when serving a crowd at a picnic or block party, I've turned to sturdier salads and lively international flavors from warmer climes: sesame-speckled Vietnamese watercress; zippy shreds of Burmese pickled young ginger; Spanish green beans tossed with sherry vinaigrette, almonds, and Moorish dried fruits; and Indian chaat filled with crunchy textures, vibrant colors, and the tingle of tangy, sour and spice.

Many of these recipes were inspired by local restaurants, and involve more intricate preparations than one might expect (though some suggested shortcuts are available).

But simplicity is the beauty of this Vietnamese watercress salad, salach xon, which I found myself devouring at a birthday party at a Vietnamese home in North Philly.

The birthday girl's grandfather, Sanh Ngo, tossed bundles of crunchy watercress in a simple blend of sesame seeds, sesame oil, sugar and lime juice. The mixture encrusted the stems and leaves with jewellike seeds, and the dressing, at once sweet, sour and nutty, cut straight through the greens' natural bitterness.

(For 8 small servings, just wash and dry 4 bunches of watercress and toss with a dressing made from the juice of 2 limes, 3 tablespoons white sugar, 1 cup sesame seeds, and 2 tablespoons sesame oil.)

Placed in great tufts beside platters of lemongrass grilled shrimp, the cress had an almost cleansing effect that would have been equally appealing alongside grilled meats seasoned with an Asian marinade.

Some of these salads have so many flavors and textures to offer, they are treated like main-event snacks in their countries of origin.

That's the case for Rangoon's young ginger salad, which in Myanmar (the former Burma) is typically eaten with tea and palm-sugar candies as an after-dinner palate cleanser or as a welcome dish to guests.

Rangoon makes two variations on the theme, with either pickled young ginger or fermented tea leaves (lephet thoke), but I'm most fond of the ginger. It has a tart spiciness that ignites the appetite, but also a range of textures and flavors that shows the complex influences of Burmese cooking, touching on Southeast Asia (dried shrimp, limes and fish sauce), China (ginger and cabbage), and India (crispy yellow lentils).

A lot of effort goes into making this recipe from scratch - and I've provided full instructions here. But some acceptable shortcuts are available at local ethnic stores, like jars of pre-shredded pickled young ginger, as well as pre-fried crispy yellow moong beans that will save you the trouble of heating your kitchen with deep-frying lentils.

You can also buy prepackaged bags of crispy papri lentil wafer mixes for chaat salads at Indian grocery stores. Of course, the homemade wafers studded with seeds of cumin and thyme are part of what make Tiffin's chaat so crisp and refreshing.

Either way, these blended chaat salads, a typical street-food snack throughout India, offer a riot of textures and colors and flavor contrasts. Crispy wafers snap against soft cubes of potato and tender chick-peas. Bright-green mint chutney swirls with tangy, brown tamarind sauce through streaks of sour white yogurt. The crunch of raw onions, shredded ginger and chiles amp the spice to a volume that makes the heat outside seem cool.

The flavors are more subdued in Tinto's judias verdes, but this Spanish take on the delicate French green beans known as haricots verts is no less exotic. Tossed in a honey-kissed sherry vinaigrette with oranges, Marcona almonds and dried dates, it gets a final dusting of smoked paprika intrigue. With a little crunch, a squirt of citrus, some sweetness and exotic spice, this sturdy salad is the perfect way to give the summer's farm-market bounty an intriguing flamenco flourish.

To Market, To Market

A number of ingredients in these recipes may require a trip to an ethnic market (or two). Here are a few suggested shopping destinations:

Indian markets for ingredients in the chaat, as well as dried yellow split peas (or pre-fried yellow moong beans) in the young ginger salad:

Rice-n-Spice, 4205-07 Chestnut St., 215-387-5250.

Subzi Mandi, 1400 Berlin Rd., Cherry Hill, 856-354-5061.

Asian markets for ingredients (shredded pickled ginger, dried shrimp, fish sauce, sesame oil, watercress) in Vietnamese watercress and young ginger salad:

Hung Vuong, 1122-1138 Washington Ave., 215-336-2803.

Chung May, 1017 Race St., 215-625-8883.

Tiffin's Aloo Papri Chaat

Makes 4 servings

For papri wafers (see Note): 10 cumin seeds

10 thyme seeds

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup gram (lentil) flour

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Oil for frying, as needed

Salt, to taste

For the salad:

2 medium potatoes, boiled, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 tablespoons minced onion

1/3 cup chickpeas

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup mint chutney

3/4 cup tamarind chutney

1 tablespoon roasted cumin seeds, ground to powder

1 2-inch piece gingerroot, julienned

1 or 2 green Thai chiles, diced (optional, extra heat)

1/4 teaspoon chili powder (optional, for super-hot)

1. For the papri, crush the cumin and thyme seeds. Mix with the all-purpose flour, gram flour, and oil. Add 1/3 to 1/2 cup water, as needed. Knead into a smooth, firm (not soft) ball. Let dough sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.

2. Roll the dough as thin as possible and cut into desired shapes (in this case 3/4-inch squares).

3. In a pan, heat 1 inch of oil to 325 to 350 degrees. Fry the papris to golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes total.

4. For the salad, combine the potatoes, onion, chickpeas, and 3 tablespoons of the cilantro. Mix the yogurt, mint and tamarind chutneys for the dressing.

5. To serve, put the papri wafers on a platter. Top it with the salad and pour the dressing evenly over the salad.

6. Garnish with the cumin powder, remaining cilantro, julienned ginger, and, if desired, chilies or chili powder.

Note: For convenience, prepared papri mixes are available at Indian markets.

Per serving: 562 calories, 18 grams protein, 111 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 330 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.

Tinto's Judias Verdes

Makes 4 servings

1 cup Sherry Vinaigrette (see Note), divided use

2 cups haricots verts, blanched

Kosher or sea salt, to taste

2 navel oranges, in segments 1/2 cup dry dates, sliced thin

1/2 cup Marcona almonds

2 teaspoons coarsely ground Marcona almonds

2 shallots, minced

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley 1/8 cup smoked paprika

1. In a small saute pan, bring 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette to a boil. Add the haricots verts and salt, to taste. Remove from heat. Toss lightly until beans are completely coated.

2. In a medium-size bowl, combine the haricots verts, the oranges, dates, Marconas, shallots, parsley and remaining vinaigrette. Again, season with a little salt and toss lightly.

3. To serve, in a shallow bowl, arrange the beans in a criss-cross pattern. Spoon the remaining mixture from the bowl over the beans. Garnish with chopped almonds and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.

Note: For the Sherry Vinaigrette, in a medium bowl, mix 2 shallots, diced fine (brunoise) with 1/2 cup sherry vinegar. Let stand to macerate (blend flavors). Meanwhile, pick and chop 1/4 cup fresh thyme. Add it to the vinegar with 11/2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard and 1 tablespoon honey. Gradually whisk in 1 cup extra virgin olive oil. Season with kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Makes 13/4 cups.

Per serving: 595 calories, 7 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 27 grams sugar, 49 grams fat, no cholesterol, 28 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.

Rangoon's Young Ginger Salad

Makes 4 servings

1 bunch young gingerroots, about 1/2 pound (see Note)

Juice of 2 limes (1/4 cup)

1 cup dried yellow split peas (see Note)

Vegetable oil for frying

1 cup shelled peanuts

1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds

1/2 pound cabbage, shredded

1/2 cup dried shrimp, ground

5 tablespoons vegetable oil, for dressing

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 large ripe tomato, sliced thin, cut into half-rounds, for garnish

1. Peel fresh ginger with potato peeler; cut julienne (1/8-inch wide) matchsticks on a mandoline. Put ginger, lime juice, and 1 cup water in a bowl. Soak 24 to 48 hours.

2. Heat 2 inches of oil to 300 degrees. Deep-fry the peas crisp, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove; drain on paper towels.

3. Toast peanuts in 275-degree oven until fragrant, 10 to 15 minutes. In processor, grind to small bits, not paste.

4. When all ingredients are prepared, drain the ginger and squeeze out remaining lime-water.

5. Combine and toss all but the tomatoes with dressing. Arrange ingredients on a platter ringed by tomato slices. Serve with palm-sugar candies and Burmese tea.

- From Rangoon restaurant, Philadelphia

Note: Shredded pickled ginger (available in 16-ounce jars in Asian markets) may be substituted for fresh ginger. For dry peas, substitute pre-fried crisp yellow moong beans.

Per serving: 705 calories, 29 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 46 grams fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 851 milligrams sodium, 20 grams dietary fiber.

Contact Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or

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