Then I remembered this salad — a Laotian-style crispy rice salad — I had at a little hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop restaurant in Falls Church, VA. Bangkok Golden is an unassuming place from the outside and is located in a nondescript strip mall. Notwithstanding, when you enter and every table is full (on a cold weekday during lunch), it tends to be a good sign.
I ordered the Lao crispy rice salad (aka nam khao), among other things, but the salad is what sticks out in my mind. Bangkok Golden offers a meat and a meatless version. Traditionally, this salad is made with fermented pork sausage (called som moo). I opted to forego the pork; the pork-free version had plenty of flavor. I think it’s the crispy rice that got me. I’m a sucker for crispy bits.
Take paella for example. The best part of paella, for me at least, is the rice. More specifically, the socarrat, that crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pan when paella is cooked perfectly. Will fight you that last bite of crispy rice.
These rice balls are deep-fried. Deep-frying is not something I do very often, but once in a while…well, what the heck? Who doesn’t enjoy something that’s deep-fried from time to time. It’s all about balance. Plus, there’s a nice amount of fresh herbs (fresh mint and cilantro) and vegetables (butter lettuce, scallions, and shallot) to give this dish a light and fresh element.
Bibb or butter lettuce makes a nice little wrap/vehicle for serving…
The rice balls are made of Jasmine rice, freshly grated coconut, red curry paste, fish sauce, egg, and a pinch of (coconut) sugar.
Deep-fried, drained, and then roughly chopped…
Freshly grated coconut goes into the rice balls. Opening a coconut can be a challenge. With hammer in hand, just needs a few good wacks to crack the coconut open. Then I shredded finely (with a box grater)…
Be sure to first reserve the coconut water. Nothing is more thirst quenching than a big glass of fresh coconut water on a hot day.
The dressing is nothing more than fish sauce and Thai chiles mixed with lime juice and sugar. Go easy on the dressing. You don’t need much. I always keep a big jar of fish sauce mixed with Thai chiles in the fridge. I just keep replenishing the chiles when I run out.
Lastly, the red curry paste…
You can use store bought curry paste such as this one, but it won’t have the same depth of flavor as homemade. If you feel so inclined to make your own curry paste, you will need: shallots, dried red chiles, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, and (kaffir) lime zest.
A few notes on some of these ingredients…
Galangal is a root in the ginger family. It has a distinct flavor. Ginger is not a good substitute for galangal. You should be able to find galangal at most Asian grocery stores. By the way, galangal freezes well.
Shrimp paste is made from fermented ground shrimp mixed with salt. It’s VERY pungent, and adds a special/unique flavor to a dish; similar to the way a few anchovies add a subtle punch of flavor to a red tomato sauce, albeit without you being able pinpoint their presence. That’s exactly what shrimp paste does. Don’t be afraid of its funky odor. You should be able to find shrimp paste at most Asian grocery stores. It lasts a really long time in the refrigerator.
Kaffir lime zest has a really unique aromatic, floraly aroma. This may be tricky to find. I was able to find some in Manhattan at a Thai grocery. If you can’t find kaffir lime, you could substitute kaffir lime leaves (often found in the freezer section in Asian grocery stores; I’ve also purchased them fresh at Whole Foods). If you can’t find kaffir lime or its zest, substitute with regular lime zest or even a combination of lemon and lime zest (it won’t have the distinct flavor of kaffir but will still impart a citrusy flavor).
The lemongrass is from the Union Square Farmers’ Market, NYC. Ditto for the shallots.
This is a kaffir lime…it’s the first time I’ve ever come across fresh kaffir lime. Kaffir’s unusual, citrusy flavor will make an lasting impression on your taste buds.
Pound, pound, pound in a mortar and pestle…this will take some time.
Crispy Rice Salad
crispy rice balls (recipe to follow)
~1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
~1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
~1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced
~1/4 cup *shallots or red onions, thinly sliced
~1/4 cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
leafy lettuce leaves, to use as wraps, such as bibb or butter lettuce
Fish sauce dressing (recipe to follow)
lime wedges, for serving
To make the salad, gently toss the chopped rice balls with the cilantro, mint, scallions, shallot/onion, and peanuts. Serve in lettuce cups with fish sauce dressing (go easy with the dressing; it has a strong flavor and is quite salty), extra peanuts, and lime wedges.
*running the shallots/onions under cold water helps to take the bite out (drain and pat dry).
Fish Sauce Dressing
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon brown or coconut sugar, more or less to taste
1 or 2 Thai chiles, thinly sliced
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk well.
Crispy Rice balls
Adapted from sbs.com.au
makes 11 golf-sized rice balls
2 cups cooked Jasmine rice
pinch of salt
1/2 cup finely shredded fresh coconut
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon brown or coconut sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons red curry paste (recipe to follow)
oil for deep frying
Season the hot Jasmine rice with a pinch of salt. Cool for 15 minutes. Add the shredded coconut, fish sauce, sugar, and egg. Mix to combine. Form into golf-sized balls. Heat a wok or deep pot with oil for deep frying to 350 F. Deep-fry the rice balls in batches until nicely browned and crispy, about 3-4 minutes. Drain. Let cool. Roughly chop.
Red Curry Paste
Adapted from sbs.com.au
This makes much more than you’ll need for the crispy rice balls.
8 large dried chiles, soaked in hot water until soft, about 20 to 30 minutes, drained, sliced
1 *kaffir lime, zested and finely chopped or 6 finely shredded lime leaves
10 small red shallots, chopped
1 small knob of galangal, chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, chopped
1 tablespoon shrimp paste
1 tablespoons sweet paprika (optional)
To make the red curry paste, use a mortar and pestle to pound all ingredients until it forms (a fairly smooth but still a bit chunky) paste.
*If you can’t find kaffir lime or its zest, substitute with regular lime zest or a combination of lemon and lime zest (it won’t have the distinct flavor of kaffir, but will still impart a citrusy flavor).