I was slurping my umpteenth spoonful of cold-weather soup, staring at my despairing, pasty reflection in this bowl of noodles and broth, dramatically downhearted and glum while trolling various Jetsetter Caribbean vacations I wasn’t going on—yes, I’ll take another helping of self-pity please— when I clicked on a short article in the New York Times Opinion Pages called This Winter Has Gotten Old.
“And long it has been,” the article acknowledged, likening the unbearable infinity of cyclic frigidity, snow, ice, and freezing rain to the sensation of being trapped. “But check the calendar: This week means we are officially in late February, which means March. March means daffodils, which means this all must eventually end.”
And just like that, my haze of disheartenment lifted. I pictured those yellow daffodils— the most telltale sign of spring—or is it the purple crocuses, peeking up from the snow in the ultimate gesture of awakening? Either way, I was done wallowing. It was time to looking forward, time to anticipate spring!
So I made this extraordinary Vietnamese Lemon Grass Beef and Noodle Salad (called Bun Bo Xao). The flavors—crisp, luminous, and revitalizing—mimicked my newfound positivity. In this recipe, root vegetables carrot and daikon radish give a quick nod to winter, but the fresh herbs, tangy sauces, and spicy chili peppers give the dish fresh, vibrant life. It’s the perfect precursor to spring.
The standout component of the salad is definitely the beef, vivacious and citrus-kissed with its fragrant lemongrass rub. The other elements are really just accouterments—julienned vegetables, delicate lettuce leaves, paper-thin rice noodles—but their raw simplicity is refreshing; the appropriate underpinning to a sauce bursting with tang and punch. Yes, this recipe is unequivocally authentic Vietnamese, but surprisingly, I was able to find every ingredient (the lemongrass, fish sauce, and rice noodles are the most obscure) at Whole Foods—no trip to an Asian market necessary. (You won’t be able to find Fresno and red/green bird chilies, but habanero and jalapeño will do the trick.)
If you are nervously eyeing the rice noodles’ carb content, try substituting with Shirataki instead: these yam starch noodles contain virtually no calories, and similarly to tofu, are tasteless: a blank canvas for any sauce you choose. Texture-wise, they’re thin and slippery; spot-on for this vermicelli-seeking salad.
This recipe is truly delightful. In addition to achieving bold, intense flavors while remaining buoyant and light, completing the dish feels like quite an accomplishment for the novice Vietnamese cuisine chef. I’ve always put Vietnamese food in the “only for take-out” category, and it was very exciting to discover how accessible this ethnic food type can be in your own kitchen. So make this dish, think of daffodils and crocuses, and remember: spring is on the way!
Vietnamese Lemon Grass Beef and Noodle Salad (Bun Bo Xao) (by David Tanis)
For the dipping sauce:
4 tablespoons Demerara or granulated light brown sugar
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons lime juice, from 2 large limes
4 tablespoons best quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1-inch length ginger, peeled and minced
1 medium-hot red chile, such as Fresno, chopped (or jalapeño/habanero)
1 hot red or green bird chile, thinly sliced
For the stir-fry:
12 ounces rice vermicelli noodles or thin Shiritaki noodles
1 pound beef skirt steak or sirloin, in thin 1/4-inch slices
2 tablespoons best quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat
1 tablespoon Demerara or granulated light brown sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons finely chopped lemon grass, tender centers only
1 head lettuce, such as butter lettuce or Little Gems, tender center leaves separated
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 scallions, slivered
1 medium carrot*, cut in 3-inch lengths, julienned (about 1 cup)
1 small cucumber*, 3-inch lengths, julienned (about 1 cup)
1 3-inch length daikon radish*, julienned (about 1 cup)
Mixture of cilantro sprigs, mint leaves, basil leaves and small perilla (shiso) leaves, about 3 cups
4 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
4 tablespoons fried shallots, available in Asian groceries (I omitted these)
Small handful bean sprouts or sunflower sprouts (optional)
*I recommend doubling the vegetables, and/or adding julienned red pepper slices and shredded Napa cabbage too. You’ll want them to soak up extra sauce!
1. Make the sauce: In a small bowl combine sugar, rice vinegar and lime juice and stir to dissolve. Add fish sauce, garlic, ginger, chiles and ½ cup water and stir together. Let sit for 15 minutes for flavors to meld. (May be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.)
2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add rice noodles, stir and turn off heat. Let noodles soften (5 to 8 minutes, depending on brand; if using Shiritaki noodles, cook according to package directions), then drain and rinse with cold water. Leave in colander at room temperature.
3. Meanwhile, combine beef, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and lemon grass in a bowl. Massage seasoning into beef and let sit for 15 minutes.
4. Line a serving bowl or four individual large wide soup bowls with a few lettuce leaves and top with noodles.
5. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. When wok is nearly smoking, add beef and quickly stir-fry until lightly browned and just cooked, about 2 minutes. Work in batches if necessary so meat browns and doesn’t steam. (If you do not have a wok, you may use a cast iron skillet and work in batches.) Note: do not overcook! I cooked for 4 minutes, and the beef was way too chewy.
6. Top noodles with cooked beef, scallions, carrot, cucumber and daikon. Sprinkle with herbs, and crushed peanuts (plus fried shallots and sprouts if using). Drizzle lightly with dipping sauce and pass remaining sauce at table.