Don’t let the Baharat spice in the rice fool you – this is one of those awesome Vietnamese salads with fish sauce dressing. I just like to cook rice with Baharat and guess what – it all works together beautifully.
You’ve got to give it to Oriental cuisines: they respect cabbage. It may be a different kind of cabbage than hammerheads, but Napa and pak choi grow happily in Europe so we have a good choice. Not that you’d know: unless a super-innovative chef ‘discovers’ cabbage, puts it on their tasting menu and charges seventy quid, you’ll be hard pressed to find cabbage dishes in British restaurants. Also the French turn their noses at it; but at least they have choucroute.
Asian cooking embraces cabbage like a dear friend. Cabbage is in spring and summer rolls, in gyoza and in dumplings, as kimchi and as suan tsai; it’s a filler and it’s a star. It’s a much better a filler than, say, potatoes or breadcrumbs and it can be a real star of the show.
This recipe is a little mix-and-match: I got the Vietnamese cabbage salad idea from Melissa Clark at NY Times Cooking and I thought it would work as well with prawns as with Melissa’s tofu (I’m kind of scared of tofu). And the concept of a bowl of fresh crunchy and zingy salad set on a bed of warm rice or noodles is brilliant; I’ve adored it ever since my first bò bún in a Vietnamese restaurant in France. Bò bún is a cold noodle layered salad with crispy beef, chopped peanuts and lots of crudités (can we please have a word for this in English?). You’d think this is nothing like it but the principle is the same - rice with toppings - and so is the gorgeous Vietnamese dressing, nuoc mam, fish sauce and brown sugar based.
You can play mix and match with it and make variations: instead of rice, nestle the bowls with warm rice or egg noodles. Stick to tofu if you like, or stir fry some beef to make the full circle towards bò bún (‘beef rice noodles’ in Vietnamese). But the cabbage is your best friend in this salad; do not dare replace it with lettuce.