Vietnamese Spicy Tuna Salad
Everyone is so obsessed with sushi that anytime the raw-fish subject comes up, everyone automatically assumes there is a Japanese connection to the recipe. Well, Mexico, Korea, Italy, Morocco and Vietnam (to name just a few countries) all have a vibrant raw-fish tradition, and some of my favorite dishes are Vietnamese fish salads.
I first tasted this dish on the island of Cat Hai, off the Vietnamese coast, a place well known to food geeks as the birthplace of nuoc mam, the world's best fish sauce. In their salad, they used a small, pale, oily fish that is not available in this country, but the texture and the flavor reminded me of tuna, so when I adapted this recipe, I used the best and freshest tuna I could find. You can also make this dish with shrimp, salmon, crab, snapper, scallops or small mackerel when they are in season. I think that the Asian fish salad concept--combining chopped and sliced vegetables and fish with bold seasonings, like toasted rice powder, lime, fish sauce, chiles and the like--is one of the world's truly great food genres, and it gives the cook a ton of leeway when it comes to playing with his food. But getting back on track, my crew and I were in Cat Hai, walking down the one road in town, right in the center of the island. It was hot and dusty and everyone was inside eating lunch at home, taking a break in the heat of a summer afternoon. We fell into a small restaurant that was really the front porch of a family home. They walked us out back to their "kitchen," pointed at a few raw ingredients and looked at me. I waved my arms in the international traveler's code indicating "all of it," and my crew and I returned to our table to wait for lunch. Over the next hour, we had a superb sour fish soup, chicken in hot chiles with lemongrass, small fresh shrimp spring rolls, smaller fried pork and bean thread egg rolls, grilled fish and this salad. I have made it ever since.
The style of frying and mashing the dried chiles is very familiar to cooks from this part of Vietnam. But when developing my version of the recipe, I used Mexican ancho chiles, which work a lot better for American cooks. I also use capers in place of the small, salted, pickled vegetables that are not available in this country.--Andrew Zimmern