Southeast Asian cuisine is a study in contrasts. Sour, sweet, spicy, and savory all find a balance in the most perfect Thai and Vietnamese dishes. One of those is laab - a spicy and sour meat salad with strong savory and salty tastes that blend into an incredibly addictive dish.
This fish salad takes its cues from laab - the sour lime, the spicy chilies - but it's lighter and sweeter than traditional pork laab, with plain white fish as the base, and strips of julienned cucumber tossed in for a sweet, cool crunch. If you like your food spicy, throw in a few more chilies. There's just an edge of heat in this - just enough to make it great with a icy cold, pale beer.
This would be good on its own or on a sandwich, but the cool lettuce leaf cups are really perfect, cooling the spicy salad with a watery crunch.
Cool and Spicy Fish and Cucumber Salad
serves 4 as a side or appetizer
1 pound fish - tilapia or another mild, thin white fish
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup white wine (optional)
1 English cucumber
1 bunch (4-6) scallions
Juice of four small limes
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 garlic cloves
3 stalks lemongrass, tenderest inner parts only
2 dried red chilies, crushed
Boston lettuce leaves, to serve
Heat about two cups of water and the wine, salt, and peppercorns in a large, high-sided skillet until boiling. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the fish. Poach at extremely low heat until done - about 4-5 minutes. Remove from the water and let cool slightly, then shred completely with two forks. Toss in the peppercorns with the fish.
Peel and julienne the cucumber. Cut off the dry or brown tops of the scallions and finely chop the green and white parts into thin rounds. Set aside.
In a food processor blend the lime juice, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, lemongrass and chilies until well blended. Taste and adjust seasonings until balanced to your taste. Pour over the fish and toss in cucumbers and scallions.
Refrigerate for an hour to let the flavors come together, but not overnight - this is best the night it is made. Serve on beds of Boston lettuce.
(Image: Faith Hopler)