Vietnamese Style Soba Noodle Salad
In just the past year or two, I’ve gone from feeling disgusted (slash indifferent) toward cabbage to actually craving it and designing recipes around it.
I blame it on all the delicious cabbage-packed shrimp tacos I’ve been eating in California, which have done what Japan’s cabbage side salads with mayonnaise and corn* could never do: convinced me that cabbage can actually be tempting and tasty!
Since our 80 degree days have persisted into October, we’ve been eating summery salads and as many no-cook (or barely-cook) dinners as we can. In the barely-cook category, I’d been wanting to pair soba noodles and cabbage together for a while, to create something crunchy and refreshing, yet still hearty and substantial.
I even asked Paula if she’d eat a soba noodle salad that had slivered cabbage and pomegranate seeds, but she said no.
So there went that idea… Instead I made something we’ve been hooked on since earlier this summer: Vietnamese Bún Chay. But with Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles instead of the traditional rice noodle vermicelli. And it’s no longer way too hot in my apartment to ever turn the oven on, so I topped the bowls with a peanutty baked tofu (for extra heartiness).
I was excited to try out the baked tofu recipe from The Kitchn. The verdict? Definitely not quite as crispy as the photos had led me to believe—and certainly not as crispy as if it were fried—but then again I also didn’t bother to coat the tofu in cornstarch…
Even though I like this recipe enough to share it with you (which, believe me, is saying something!) I have to admit that the texture of the tofu was not as crispy as it could have been. So another option besides baking would be to (press out the water and cube it, then) lightly coat each cube of tofu in cornstarch before frying them in small batches (2-3 min. each side), in a shallow dish filled with hot sunflower oil that is deep enough to come about halfway up the side of each tofu cube.
(That style of one-side-at-a-time, nothing-fully-submerged deep-frying is just about the only kind I
can choose to handle.)
After all that time and effort deep-frying, you could either coat them in a peanut sauce modeled after the marinade below, or skip the peanut-flavored-ness of the tofu altogether, because your tofu will be crispy, crunchy, and… well, deep-fried.
The healthier (and easier!) option is of course to bake your tofu; and the peanut butter marinade does keep things interesting.
One nice surprise about this dish—especially if you’re not as much of a Vietnamese rice noodle bowl addict as I am—is the lovely temperature contrast. Since the noodles are served at room temperature, or even slightly chilled, bún chay is like a giant salad—a spring roll in a bowl: crunchy, bright, and refreshing. Once you add the warm peanut tofu on top, you have a meal.
Not that it has to be tofu; at restaurants, I often order Vietnamese rice vermicelli bowls with either grilled shrimp or egg rolls on top (or shrimp cakes, if they’re available).
Earlier this summer, when the oven was out of the question, and nothing sounded quite as delicious as a restaurant-style warm eggroll-adorned rice noodle bowl, Paula and I even topped our bowls of bún vermicelli with warm chicken dumplings (sadly, not homemade).
It may sound strange (and it was) to add potstickers to a bowl of rice noodles, but in lieu of eggrolls, it works. And it’s a lot easier than dealing with the total-submersion style of deep-frying at home—I’ll save that for the restaurants.
Bún chay is also a great way to use up all of your vegetables! Try tossing in whatever you have: not just cabbage (or lettuce) and bean sprouts but also juienned carrots, daikon, cucumbers, or sweet bell peppers.
Then bust out your biggest bowls and fill them up with crunchy goodness, and perhaps fewer noodles than you think you might need: this light, summery meal can be incredibly filling—even without the tofu.
* I know I’ve boldly claimed before that “everything is delicious in Japan,” but what I really meant was “everything is delicious in Japan except for the ubiquitous cabbage side salads with mayonnaise and corn.”
Print this recipe. (PDF)
Vietnamese Style Soba Noodle Salad (Bún Chay) with Baked Peanut Tofu
~ 4-6 oz. dried soba noodles (or vermicelli rice noodles)
~ 1-2 cups cold water
~ 1-2 slices of cabbage, thinly sliced (or crunchy greens like iceberg lettuce)
~ handful of bean sprouts
~ ⅓ cup cashews (or peanuts), roughly chopped
~ ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
~ several sprigs fresh mint, chopped
~ 2-3 scallions, diced
~ sliced, pickled carrots or daikon radish
~ other julienned crunchy vegetables, such as red bell pepper
For the Baked Peanut Tofu:
(Adapted from The Kitchn.)
~ 8 oz. extra firm tofu
~ 1½-2 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter
~ 2 Tbsp. water
~ 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
~ 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
~ 1 clove garlic, minced
~ dash of chili powder
For the Nuoc Cham Sauce:
(Adapted from the Lemongrass and Ginger Cookbook by Leemei Tan.)
~ juice of 2 limes
~ 1 tsp. sugar
~ 1 red bird’s eye chili, seeds discarded, thinly sliced or diced
~ 2 tsp. fish sauce (or 1 tsp. soy sauce and pinch of salt, to make vegan)
How to make it:
1. Place tofu in a dish on a paper towel with another dish (or two) on top to weight it down, and allow the excess water to be pressed out of it for 10-15 min.
2. Make the tofu marinade: Combine the peanut butter and water and microwave for several seconds (or warm in a small saucepan on the stovetop) until peanut butter is soft enough to stir into the water and dissolve. Then stir in soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, and chili powder. Cut tofu into cubes and gently toss to coat it in the peanut butter marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes, then bake at 375 degrees for 40-45 minutes, turning the tofu cubes 2-3 times.
3. While the tofu is baking, make the Nuoc Cham sauce: In a small bowl, combine the lime juice and sugar, and stir to mix well. Add the chili and fish sauce, mix well, and set aside.
4. When the tofu is close to being done, make the noodles: Bring water in a large saucepan to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to medium-high and add the soba noodles. When it starts to boil over, pour in 1 cup cold water, and stir (no need to adjust the burner if you catch it in time). Cook soba for 5-6 minutes total; the second time it starts to boil over, either add more cold water (if noodles don’t seem done yet), or turn off the burner and drain. Rinse noodles with cold running water. (Or, for rice vermicelli noodles, cook according to package directions, usually for 3-5 min., then drain and rinse with cold running water.)
5. Assemble noodle bowls: Place cabbage and bean sprouts in the bottom of each bowl. Top with cold soba noodles. Top noodles with fresh herbs, cashews, and warm baked tofu. Then serve immediately, pouring half of the nuoc cham noodle sauce over each bowl.
Print this recipe! (PDF)
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