Bhel Puri with Crisp Vietnamese Rice Cakes and Pork Floss
As we get into the dog days of summer, the temptation to resort to an all-salad diet is strong. There's fantastic produce at the markets, there's nothing you want to do less than turn on a stove, and, frankly, there's few things better than a lunch or dinner that comes together in five minutes or less.
As much as I love all that fresh produce, though, I can't help but want to throw something a little less virtuous into every salad I eat. Sometimes it's some fried halloumi, other times I go for some onion pakoras--crisp tangles of thinly sliced onions fried in a chickpea flour batter--or just some spicy crumbled papads thrown in at the last minute for a little crunch.
This salad is a variation on bhel puri, one of the great snack staples of Mumbai, though its popularity is such that regional variations abound. It's almost impossible to walk the streets of any Indian city and not find a vendor selling some kind of snack that makes use of puffed rice. Some of them are as simple as peanuts and puffed rice tossed together with a few dry spices in a hot pan and served in a paper cone. You can buy puffed rice in any decent Indian grocery store. (Since I know you're going to ask, I wouldn't recommend Rice Krispies for this recipe, though if you can find an unsweetened brand, go for it, and let me know how it works for you!)
The twist in this recipe came to me on a recent trip tour through LA's Little Saigon. I was poking around Van's Bakery, stocking up on various kinds of salted fish, cuttlefish, beef jerky, and salted plums, when I came across a clamshell pack of cơm cháy chà bông, crisp-fried rice cakes made from puffed rice and seasoned with fish sauce, sugar, onions, and delicate puffs of pork floss. Since I can never resist a new snack food (especially one that includes pork floss), I picked up a box. I was so busy eating the rest of my trip (which included a stop at the fantastic Brodard), that I never got to opening my box of cơm cháy.
Back in New York, rather than just inhaling the box all in its own (tempting), I decided to use it to doctor up the traditional bhel puri, adding a little heft with the pork floss, and some great flavor from the seasoning in the cơm cháy in the bargain. For good measure, I added the requisite summer vegetables, and to retain some semblance of credibility a good dousing of tamarind sauce.
As long as you have a little tamarind sauce on hand, the whole dish comes together in a snap and is just the right mix of quick, healthy, and decadent. It's certainly not traditional, but it's bound to make your summer a little better!
A note on rice: If you can't find cơm cháy, feel free to use puffed rice, as I mentioned. This is often sold as bhel, murmura, or kurmura at most Indian stores. If you aren't using the cơm cháy, though, do consider adding a little extra zest to the dish with some finely chopped green chile, chaat masala, or amchur (dried mango powder).
Serves 2 as a light salad
2 cups cơm cháy, crumbled (if unavailable, use plain puffed rice)
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1 ripe tomato, cut into medium dice
1 persian cucumber, cut on the bias into 1/4" slices
6-7 leaves Thai basil, roughly torn
Rau Răm (Vietnamese coriander) torn (optional)
1 walnut-sized piece of tamarind
Salt to taste
Pour 1/4 cup of boiling water over the tamarind in a small, heatproof bowl. Cover with a plate and set aside for 10 minutes.
Set a strainer over a bowl and pour the tamarind and water into it. Press with the back of a spoon to remove as much of the solids from it as possible. You should be left with a thickish purée. Thin with water to make a pourable mixture.
In a large bowl, combine the tomato, cucumber, onion, and 3-4 tbsp of the tamarind sauce. Mix thoroughly.
Add the cơm cháy to the bowl, along with the herbs, and mix once again. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed, adding more salt or tamarind as needed.
Serve immediately before the rice gets soggy.