My food-related habits are so predictable. A couple of weeks ago I emerged from Italy feeling like I'd eaten an entire pig, and had consequently turned into one. I reached for the lime juice, ginger, chilli and Thai fish sauce to make me feel more human and less porcine. A couple of days ago I emerged from Prague, land of (more) pig and omnipresent dumplings, again feeling more like a farmyard animal ready for slaughter than my normal, relatively healthy self. The remedy? Thai food. Or, at least, vaguely Thai food, because this is in no way authentic and I'm sure would make a Thai person weep. There's just something about the freshness of lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and copious quantities of herbs that will bring life back to the most jaded and over-porked palates.
I'm a big fan of Thai papaya salads, in which unripe papaya is tossed with a zingy dressing and lots of chilli. I had it in a Thai restaurant in Oxford once; I had eaten half of it and sweat had started to bead on my brow and my mouth had started to burn, before I realised why: those lovely crunchy green beans I'd been eating in the salad were in fact whole green chillies. And as everyone knows, the smaller and greener the chilli, the greater the oral inferno. Still, it was delicious; the interplay of sour, salty, hot and sweet is a hallmark of Thai food and incredibly addictive.
I have therefore created something vaguely similar to the Thai papaya salad, but made a few additions. Firstly, some rice noodles, largely because despite feeling clinically obese I was still pretty hungry and I just knew that, sadly, vegetables alone would not cut it. Secondly, I didn't use papaya, but mango. You can substitute underripe mango for the underripe papaya, which was my intention, but the firm specimen I picked up in the supermarket turned out to be deliciously ripe and juicy. The one time I actually want rock hard supermarket mangoes, and they don't have any! Still, this did not matter, especially as I got to nibble all the bits of flesh from around the stone - cook's perk.
I also grated in some cucumber, for its coolness, added some beansprouts and spring onions, for crunch, and then tossed it all with a dressing. This was made from lime juice, finely chopped garlic and chilli, Thai fish sauce, and some sugar to balance the flavours and take the edge off the chilli. After mixing everything together I added a large amount of herbs: coriander, mint and basil, finely chopped and releasing the most delicious peppery aromas. I love all three of these herbs, but they work particularly well combined together; you get the aniseedy notes from the basil, the lemony freshness from the mint, and the lime notes from the coriander.
Finally, some protein in the form of prawns and langoustines. The former I bought cooked and ready-peeled; the latter still had shells on so I sauteed them in some olive oil until pink and crispy. They perched atop the salad, curled up like little pink commas, and it was ready to go. I think it looks great; the yellow of the mango and green of the herbs flecked with little pinpricks of red chilli and topped with those gorgeous salmon-coloured shellfish. A bowl of healthy goodness.
The different elements in this salad work together really well; the sweetness of the mango stops the dressing from being too hot or sour, and the fragrance of the herbs gives it a lovely freshness. All this goes very well with the rich prawns and langoustines, though you could use chicken or beef or perhaps duck instead. The only thing I'd do differently next time is omit most of the beansprouts, or cook them first: raw, they have an unpleasant bitterness that marred the sweet dressing and mango. It might also be easier to serve the mango, cucumber and dressing on top of a bed of rice noodles, rather than trying to toss the whole thing together; they tend to clump without mixing evenly with the dressing.
Minor issues aside, this is the perfect thing to counteract a little (or a lot, in my case) gastronomic over-indulgence. Not a pig or a dumpling in sight.
Thai-style prawn, noodle, mango and lime salad (serves 4):
1 medium-ripe mango, grated
Half a cucumber, grated
4 spring onions, finely sliced diagonally
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp Thai fish sauce
2 tsp brown sugar
Large handfuls of chopped basil, coriander or mint (or all three)
A packet of beansprouts, raw or briefly stir-fried, as you prefer
Rice noodles (enough for 4 - see packet instructions)
500-600g raw or cooked prawns or langoustines, or both (or use strips of chicken, beef or duck)
First, cook the rice noodles - just pour over enough boiling water to cover and leave to soak.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Mix the juice of the limes with the chilli, garlic, fish sauce and sugar. Add the mango, cucumber and spring onions. Mix in the herbs (reserve some for garnishing) and beansprouts. Taste - you might want more sugar, fish sauce, lime juice or chilli, depending on your individual preferences.
If your prawns are raw, heat a little olive oil in a frying pan until hot, then add the prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, or until pink. If they're cooked, just add to the salad as they are (you might like to warm them through).
Divide the noodles between four plates. Top with the dressing and mango mixture, then top that with the cooked prawns. Serve garnished with extra herbs and lime wedges to squeeze over.