Fish Sauce & Summer Salad with Shrimp and Melon

June 23rd, 2010 / Comments 2

The first time I was aware of fish sauce, I thought that the sewage pipe had broken in our Singapore kitchen. I was upstairs getting ready to go out to dinner and Beth, a young Filipina who lived with us, was cooking dinner for my sons. Beth was not a great cook but the boys always enjoyed the chicken adobo she made. I ran to the kitchen, expecting to have to deal with toxic waste, and found Beth laughing. She assured me that the smell was just a bit of fish sauce that she had poured into a hot pan.
fish three c egbert Fish Sauce & Summer Salad with Shrimp and Melon
I couldn’t believe that something that smelled so terrible could make anything taste good. I soon learned that fish sauce has been used, around the world for at least 2500 years to add flavor and as a main ingredient in both dipping sauces and dressings for grilled meat and fish, noodle and vegetable salads. Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish that have been layered with salt and it imparts umami, a Japanese word that translates as “good taste”, to food. Garum was the name for fish sauce to ancient Romans but it was usually referred to as that “evil smelling sauce”. Not only did Romans use it to season meat and fish dishes there is mention of its use in a pear and honey souffle!
fish y c egbert Fish Sauce & Summer Salad with Shrimp and Melon Fish sauce is the ingredient that transformed a shrimp and vegetable salad into a Vietnamese inspired, summer salad that was grand enough to serve at an elegant dinner party. This salad combines many of the flavors of Southeast Asia and can be varied to suit your palate, pantry and pocketbook. Pork or chicken can be substituted for shrimp, and mangos or other melons can be substituted for the watermelon. Rather than making this salad in a large salad bowl I made individual salads. Here’s how I did it:

Summer Salad with Shrimp and Melon

I pulsed two cloves of garlic with a teaspoon of kosher salt in a food processor. When it was chopped, I added two pounds of peeled and deveined raw shrimp. I pulsed the shrimp mixture until it was coarsely ground but not pureed. I heated two tablespoons of vegetable oil over high heat in a large frying pan and added the shrimp and two teaspoons of light brown sugar. I cooked the ground shrimp for about four minutes, stirring often, until it was cooked through, and then put it into a bowl to cool while I prepared the rest of the ingredients. Chicken or pork can be prepared the same way but may take a bit longer.

For the dressing, I heated a quarter of a cup of fish sauce and three tablespoons of light brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the sugar was completely dissolved, I removed the pan from the heat and added a large pinch of cayenne pepper, half a cup of fresh lime juice and one thinly sliced jalapeno pepper, and set it aside.

I prepared the rest of the ingredients before I assembled the individual salads. I blanched half a pound of green beans in boiling water and, when they were tender, I rinsed them with cold water to stop the cooking and drained them on a towel. I cooked four ounces of thin rice noodles in boiling salted water until tender but not mushy, rinsed them in cold water, drained them and stirred in a teaspoon of vegetable oil.

I used a salad spinner to rinse separately – a head of tender butter lettuce, half a pound of bean sprouts, a bunch of fresh mint, a bunch of basil, and a bunch of cilantro. I cut a eight scallions in half and then halved them lengthwise, coarsely chopped half a cup of honey-roasted peanuts, trimmed the roots and larger leaves from a bunch of radishes, and cut a seedless cucumber into four-inch matchsticks. I removed the dark green rind from a quarter of a watermelon and cut the flesh into thin slices.

I arranged the vegetables, herbs and melon likes spokes of a wheel on six over-sized dinner plates, put the shrimp in the center, spooned on the dressing and sprinkled on the chopped peanuts.

All of the components of this salad can be prepared and refrigerated up to eight hours before being served. If any of your guests question the use of fish sauce, tell them that if they have used Worcestershire sauce to add flavor to a burger, they have already eaten a sauce made with fermented anchovies.

Summer Salad List

  • Shrimp
  • Vegetable oil
  • Brown sugar
  • Fish sauce
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Lime
  • Jalapeno pepper
  • Green beans
  • Rice noodles
  • Lettuce
  • Bean sprouts
  • Mint
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Scallions
  • Honey-roasted peanuts
  • Radishes
  • Cucumber
  • Watermelon
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