Vancouver: (George Straight) This Christmas, Quang Dang won’t be visiting his folks back home in Calgary. Christmas Eve is a busy day at West (2881 Granville Street), where Dang is executive chef, and when the restaurant is closed on December 25, he plans to enjoy his day off.
“My Christmas tradition now is to crack a beer and sit on the couch,” Dang tells the Georgia Straight during an interview at the South Granville restaurant. “It’s actually been quite challenging over the years. My mom always likes to celebrate Christmas, and I still don’t think she’s gotten used to me not being there. You just don’t get a lot of break time as a chef.”
Growing up with both Scottish and Vietnamese heritage, Dang was exposed to diverse flavours and ingredients at an early age. At Christmas, his family alternated between celebrating with his mom’s Scottish-Canadian relatives and visiting his dad’s side of the family, which has roots in Ho Chi Minh City.
“A lot of my dad’s family lived in Montreal so when we’d visit, they would celebrate réveillon and have tourtière on Christmas Eve, and we’d have a Vietnamese Christmas dinner the next day,” he recalls.
One dish that was always part of that Christmas Day dinner was salad rolls with steamed fish.
“My family is from the south of Vietnam, where they have seafood diets with lots of chilies,” Dang explains. “The whole fish symbolizes good luck, so there would always be a steamed fish and we’d eat it in a salad roll.”
Dang says that earlier in the day, his family would prepare all of the ingredients for the salad rolls—chopped herbs, pickled daikon, vermicelli, and steamed fish. When the time came for the evening meal, the ingredients would be laid out on the dinner table—with the whole fish as the centrepiece—and everyone would construct their own salad rolls.
Instead of dipping the rolls in a creamy peanut dressing, which typically accompanies store-bought salad rolls in North America, Dang’s family enjoyed them with a sweet chili and ginger sauce.
“Peanut sauce is too heavy for the delicate fish, which is steamed with a lot of aromatics,” Dang says. “The beautiful thing about Vietnamese food is that it’s still evolving, and it’s a neat style of cuisine that way. You’re allowed to break traditions a little bit, too. I think growing up, that was the fun thing about it. It wasn’t the same old Christmas turkey every year. We’d have something a little bit different.”
For this recipe, Dang also breaks tradition by using a fish fillet rather than a whole fish. To pair with the salad rolls, he suggests a glass of Riesling or a crisp, light beer.
Quang Dang’s Vietnamese salad rolls with lingcod
2 cups (500 mL) white vinegar
1 medium-sized daikon, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 bunches Thai basil, divided
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1¼ lb (570 g) lingcod fillet
1 Tbsp (15 mL) sesame oil
2 stalks lemongrass, crushed and roughly chopped
1 thick slice ginger
3 shallots, peeled and sliced
1 head of garlic, peeled
3 cups (750 mL) water
1 package round rice-paper wrappers, about 20 sheets separated into whole leaves
2 cups (500 mL) vermicelli, cooked according to package directions and chilled
1 cucumber, cut into matchsticks
1 red chili, thinly sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges
Sweet chili ginger sauce (see recipe below)
1. To pickle the daikon, bring vinegar to a boil over medium-high heat. Place daikon sticks in a medium bowl and pour boiling vinegar on top. Let stand for 1 hour.
2. In a large bamboo steamer basket, make a bed of vegetables using 1 bunch of Thai basil and onion. Season the fish with salt and pepper and lay on top of vegetables. Drizzle with sesame oil.
3. Place lemongrass, ginger, shallots, garlic, and water in a pot that will fit under the steamer basket. Bring liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Place basket on top and steam, covered, for 15 minutes or until fish is opaque and flakes easily. Carefully transfer fish onto a serving plate.
4. When ready to serve, lay out all ingredients so diners can construct their own rolls. Dip one sheet of rice paper into a bowl of warm water. Shake off excess water and lay on a smooth, flat surface. On the half of the paper closest to you, add 1 lettuce leaf and a pinch of noodles, cucumber, pickled daikon, basil leaves, and chili. Add about 1 oz (28 g) of fish and squeeze juice from lime wedge over top. Roll away from you. When you reach halfway up the roll, fold in sides and continue rolling. Serve with sweet chili ginger sauce.
Sweet chili ginger sauce
1 cup (250 mL) water
½ cup (125 mL) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 mL) fish sauce
2 Tbsp (30 mL) white vinegar
1 slice ginger, about 1 inch thick
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 bird’s eye chilies
1 star anise
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled and finely grated
1. Combine water, sugar, fish sauce, and vinegar in medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add all remaining ingredients. Steep for 30 minutes. Chill and remove ginger and star anise before serving.
Yield: 20 salad rolls, or about 4 main-course servings.