Raising the Salad Bar
Even in Northern California, the Salad Bowl of the World, we take salad for granted. It will be fresh, we tell ourselves. It will include at least one green ingredient, we say. Lettuce and dressing may or may not be involved.
The spicy Vietnamese green papaya salad that is a first-course classic at Vanessa’s Bistro (1715 Solano Ave., 510-525-8300) in Berkeley defies all previous assumptions. Raw and julienned matchstick-thin, sunset-colored carrot and jade-green—that is, unripe—papaya are mingled to produce a mound that sings, in look, taste, texture and perfume, of spring. Studding this slope are plump poached prawns, sliced into fat coat-button bites, along with roasted peanuts, fried shallots and mint. Sweet-hot dressing and crisp palm-sized shrimp chips are served on the side.
Slender and almost tender because they’re young and sliced so fine, the carrot and papaya strips crunch coyly between the teeth, literally sounding like the word “fresh.” With every bite, the brain reels at the sheer improbability of eating unripe fruit for fun. Sleek, salty shallots, peanuts and prawns provide a savvy, substantial balance.
Green-papaya salad is a favorite in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. But Vietnam has its own lesser-known spin on this dish, which hovers on the salad-slaw frontier.
“In Thailand, they make the dressing by putting dried shrimp, sugar, chili and a little papaya through something like a cement grinder. This produces a heavier flavor and texture, and it smells very strong,” says Vanessa Dang, chef/owner of Vanessa’s Bistro, which has a second location in Walnut Creek. Dang crafts her salads in the distinct style of her hometown, Saigon.
“The Saigon version is much lighter than the Thai kind,” she explains, “and very mild.”
Mild, but still a subtle cascade of contrasts. You can’t take this salad for granted.