Driven by the desire make my own green papaya salad and “Namsod Khao Tod” at home, I’ve created this Thai and Laotian inspired, bright, funky, and spicy salad that’s neither one of those dishes, but hits the spot for both. This salad is piled-high with crispy fresh Napa cabbage and crunchy veggies, chewy rice noodles, creamy tofu, and a Ginger Lime Dressed that’s definitely the most opinionated thing I’ve ever put into my mouth.
I don’t think I’m alone here in feeling like there’s something magical about restaurant dishes that makes them seem impossible to make at home. Feeling like, even if I could figure out exactly how they cooked them, and even if I could source the exact same ingredients, it just seems like I would still never be able to make the same food for myself at home. So, if I want a restaurant dish, I have to go to a restaurant.
The amount of money this feeling has cost me…
And that’s not to say that restaurants and chefs aren’t special or magical, or that what they provide isn’t more than just a good meal. It’s true, you can’t get at home exactly what you can get from a restaurant.
But why do most of us not even try?
The average home cook just doesn’t give themselves enough credit. With a decent recipe and a bit of practice, I think that anyone could make their favorite restaurant dishes at home. Or at least something similar or adjacent, so you could satisfy your cravings without having to leave the house whenever the hunger strikes.
There was a decent period of time when I was going out to my favorite Thai restaurant, Thailicious, at least once a week to get my fix of those flavors which seemed so far beyond my cooking reaching. The food was always fast and amazing, and my mind was always blown by how great everything tasted. There was no way I could do it for myself! I was convinced that the only way to get those flavors, was by dining in, or taking out.
Until one day, probably out of boredom or hunger, or both, I decided to try out a Thai noodle recipe and see how close I could get to the restaurant version. I knew that there would be infinite recipes online to comb through, as well as regional variations of the dish, and the preferences of the individual chefs who have written recipes, not to mention my own culinary shortcomings once I actually selected a recipe.
But I had to start somewhere. I Googled “drunken noodle”, and chose which recipe I was going to try based on what ingredients I already had on hand.
To be honest, that first attempt was a failure. But it gave me perspective enough to develop my own recipe for Garlic Noodles, which is one of my favorite go-to recipes. It wasn’t exactly what I get at Thailicious, but I knew that if I got a craving for those sweet, yet savory, garlicky noodles, that I could satisfy the craving at home. And that was a win!
So, if you’ve been around my channel for a while, you’ve probably seen recipes for Thai-Inspired Coconut Soup, Garlic Noodles, Orange Tofu, and even my favorite noodle dish of all time, Drunken Noodles. All of those recipes came from me trying to get at home, what I thought I could only get from a restaurant. Some of them are closer to the restaurant versions than others, but they all hit the spot.
For the most part, I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at reproducing and veganizing those recipes, even though, more times than not, I still choose to just order takeout instead of making it myself. But that’s not the point!
We were in quite a rut for a while. Not a bad rut, but more of a routine where we just ordered the same thing every time we went out to Thailicious. We always loved what we got, and we never felt like we were “stuck”, but we got to a point where stopped even opening up the menus.
That was until one day, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted, but moreover smelled, a dish that we had never seen (or sniffed) before.
The sour, pungent aroma was the first thing to hit us and draw our attention. Then we noticed that the dish was piled high with tiny cubes of fried tofu, crunchy bits of rice, red onion, bits of ginger, and fresh herbs, with a few leaves of Romaine lettuce on the side.
Being and introverted-extrovert, I’ve never been the type to interrupt other people at a restaurant and ask them what they’ve ordered. For this dish, though, I made an exception.
As one of the two girls seated at the table began to spoon some of the dish onto her plate, I politely asked what exactly it was that they had ordered. Being as white as me, she shyly struggled to say the name, and instead decided to just pick up one of the menus stacked on our table, and point to the dish.
“VEGAN NAMSOD KHAO TOD”
The menu described the dish, which was under the SALAD section, as “crispy tofu mixed with hot and sour sauce…”
When our server arrived, we didn’t hesitate to order it, and within minutes, we had our own pungent platter in front of us. I grabbed a romaine leaf, and filled it with the crispy, fragrant salad, and took my first bite.
Fireworks. That’s all I can say. It lit everything up, and changed the way that I saw food. I had never tasted something so bold and opinionated. The texture was perfectly crunchy and crispy, with the occasional burst of red onion and ginger flavors. It was simultaneously fiery hot from the bits of chili throughout, and cooling from the bright acidity and fresh cilantro.
Ben looked at me with his mouth full of food, and said, “You need to figure out how to make this!”
Tasting what I had just tasted, I was like, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to make this at home.
As the weather started heating up, and as quarantine prevented me from eating out at Thailicious, I decided it was a good time to finally take a crack at it. I Googled, found a few recipes, and through a rough version of the dressing together using scraps of ingredients I had on hand.
That first attempt was pretty far off, but with just the garlic, lime juice, ginger, and vegan fish sauce mixed together, I knew that I was on the right track.
I went to Seafood City, my favorite Filipino market, to get ingredients for my Namsod “journey”, and while I was loading up my cart with limes and Thai chilis, I spotted a pre-cut green papaya. My mouth watered as I thought about the bright spiciness of a green papa salad, and I realized that the sourness and funkiness of that salad wasn’t far off from that of Namsod. I already had limes and vegan fish sauce, so why not give that salad a try as well?
I was a bit more successful with recreating the green papaya salad than I was at making Namsod. For some reason, even after trying a few different recipes, I just couldn’t get the crispy rice to turn out right.
Both dressings were a success, and since they both had a few overlapping ingredients, I decided to try mixing them together. The resulting dressing was incredible, and I wanted to come up with a way to use that dressing to make my own Thai or Laotian inspired salad that was neither green papaya salad nor Namsod, but that could satisfy my cravings for both.
Napa cabbage was my first choice because I knew that it was fairly easy to find and full of sweetness and crunch. I needed to find alternatives for both green papaya and crispy fried rice, and Napa cabbage seemed like it would do the trick.
Some of the salad ingredients, like the red onion and cilantro came out of the dressing itself. They still contribute to the overall flavor profile, but leaving them larger adds a bit more color and texture to the salad. The other ingredients came to me as I searched my fridge for fresh veggies, and at the last minute, I decided to add the “nests” of chewy rice noodles for a contrast in texture.
Visually, this salad is nothing like either of the dishes that inspired it, but it certainly satisfies that cravings I have for a hyper-flavored, bright and acidic salad, overflowing with crispy freshness.
That’s a ton of stuff!
I’m going to say it before you have a chance to: There are a ton of ingredients in this recipe! And yeah, there are. I’ve listed and explained them below, including the special equipment that I used when making this recipe. In terms of the dressing, I do think that every ingredient in that recipe plays a starring role. It’s an ensemble cast, it’s Friends, so there’s not much wiggle room with omitting or swapping those ingredients out.
With the salad portion, though, you can have a bit more fun there. Add or take away or substitute your favorite or seasonal greens or veggies for what I’ve used. In the end, this is just a recipe. Make it your own and use what you’ve got on-hand.
Here’s what a full list and explanation of everything you’ll need to make this incredible salad, including any substitutions that can be made.
Equipment (contains affiliate links):
- Mortar and pestle or small food processor – Experimenting with Thai and Laotian dishes has me obsessed with using a mortar and pestle in the kitchen. I love the intoxicating aroma that wafts up as I grind and paste my way through garlic, ginger, and chilis. There’s really nothing quite like it. But do you really need to buy a special piece of equipment to make this dish? That’s your call. You could totally use a food processor or even a blender, or just your expert knife skills. Just be cautious not to over-”blitz” the ingredients. You don’t want the aromatics in the dressing to be so big that you have to chew through them, but you also don’t want them to be fully liquefied and lose their individual personalities.
- Serving platter – The way that I have plated this salad in the photo above, and in the video, is my favorite way to serve this salad to a group. If you’re just serving one or two people, then you can totally skip the serving platter routing, and just throw the ingredients in a bowl. Either way, it’s going to be amazing.
Pantry Staples (contains affiliate links):
- Bragg’s Liquid Aminos – I don’t remember the last time I actually purchased “soy sauce”. At this point, I just prefer and I am just more familiar with the milder flavor of Bragg’s. So, anytime you see Bragg’s Liquid Aminos in one of my recipes, feel free to substitute-in whatever low-sodium soy sauce or tamari you have on hand. Just know that my recipes are not tested using a “full-sodium” soy sauce, so if you do want to use one in this recipe, you’ll have to adjust a bit for the increased salinity.
- Vegan fish sauce – This recipe was originally made and tested using a store-bought vegan fish sauce. Unless you have access to a good Asian market, you probably won’t be able to find it. So, if you can’t find it in stores, or you just don’t want to bother looking, then scroll to the bottom of this page for my easy vegan fish sauce recipe. The flavor and saltiness isn’t exactly the same, so just make sure to read the notes in the dressing recipe for how to adjust the recipe.
- Sambal Oelek chili paste – Sambal is by far my favorite chili sauce. Sriracha is so passe. Sambal is hotter and has a slightly different flavor. Don’t have it? Use sriracha (I won’t judge…), Hate heat? Leave it out completely.
- Rice vermicelli (thin rice noodles) – These noodles were one of the last things I added to this recipe, but one of the best decisions I made when concocting it. I love the texture and body that these noodles give to the salad; transforming it from a simple side salad into a satisfying meal. You should be able to easily find these rice noodles on the Asian aisle of your local supermarkets.
- Toasted sesame seeds – For the longest time, I thought that sesame seeds were just added to dishes for garnish. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Toasted sesame seeds also add a ton of flavor and texture. You could omit them, but you’ll be missing out. Just because I have black sesame seeds on hand, I’ve been adding them to all of my dishes. If you only have white on hand, use those. If they’re not toasted, add them to a dry pan on medium heat, and toss them for a few minutes until they smell fragrant and “toasty”.
- Tofu – For the first few tests of this recipe, I used pre-fried tofu cubes that I found at Seafood City, which I just crisped up in my air fryer. They were sold-out when I went to buy them for the recipe video, so I just used firm tofu instead. I loved this salad both ways, so if you have access to fried tofu, or you want to fry some of your own, I would strongly encourage you to use that. If you don’t and you don’t then do as I did, and just cube up whatever tofu you have laying around. In addition to adding a bunch of protein to this salad, tofu also contributes a nice texture (crispy or soft), and a nice reprieve from the intensity of the Spicy Ginger Lime Dressing.
- Peanuts – In the dressing and sprinkled on top, peanuts add a ton of flavor and a bit of richness to this salad. Can’t or don’t want to use peanuts? Almonds would also work well. Peanut or almond butter will also work in place of the peanuts that are ground into the dressing.
- Sugar – Pretty much every Asian, or Asian-inspired dish, whether it’s Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, will have a bit of sweetness added to it. I used organic cane sugar when testing and writing this recipe, but you could also use agave, or even maple syrup in its place. The granular sugar does help to break down the garlic and chili in the mortar and pestle, but if you’re using a food processor, or just mincing everything by hand, that won’t be an issue.
- Limes – The acid that makes the dressing shine is lime juice. You’ll need the juice of two limes for this, and I don’t recommend using the bottled kind. So much of this dish relies on the freshness and brightness of fresh ingredients, that you would just be letting yourself down to use something from a bottle. Trust me!
- Ginger – Like the limes, the ginger really holds this dressing up. Use fresh. Do not use pre-minced or pre-pasted. Peel your own knob with the edge of a spoon, and mince it yourself. This recipe calls for 1 ½ to 2 ounces (½ cup, chopped) which sounds like a ton, and it is, but I promise that it’s kept in check by the other ingredients. Use the “shingle” mincing method (like I show in this video), to make the job of mincing-up so much ginger a little bit easier.
- Garlic – Unless you have an allergy, or some childhood trauma associated with it, you need to use fresh garlic in this recipe. I’m the king of relying on pre-chopped garlic to get the job done, but for this recipe, I would strongly recommend that you take the extra time to just peel a couple of cloves instead. Use the fresh stuff. You’ll thank me later.
- Birdseye (Thai) chili – I normally go for a 5 or 6 out of 10 when choosing how hot I want my Thai food to be at a restaurant. Using one birdseye chili in this dressing gets you there. If you don’t like heat, leave it out. If you can’t find Thai chilis, or you just don’t want to look, then you can use red chili flake, to taste, instead.
- Green onion – You’ll just need one large green onion for this recipe. If you want to leave it out completely, that’s fine. There will be enough onion flavor from the red onion that gets added to the salad. I like adding both the white and the green parts to the dressing to deepen the flavor a bit, and to add a bit of verdence.
- Napa cabbage – By far, Napa is my favorite of all cabbages. The flavor is sweet and mild, and it offers both a frilly delicacy and a refreshing crunch. Could you use any type of lettuce or cabbage in its place? Savoy cabbage would work well. Romaine or green or red leaf lettuces, maybe. Although the dressing would be amazing on pretty much anything, I wouldn’t really entrust this salad to any other brassicas or lettuces.
- Cilantro – If you stick around here long enough, you’ll see that I use cilantro quite a bit. It’s a staple in both Asian and Latin dishes, and I truly can’t get enough of it. Similar dressing recipes called for using chopped cilantro inside, but I decided that I wanted to make the cilantro leaves a part of the salad itself. If you have an aversion to it, just leave it out, or sub-in parsley or celery leaves.
- Red onion – You could get away with using a sweet yellow onion instead, but red is really the best onion for this salad. Red has a perfect balance of sweetness and spiciness, and when I picture the Thai or Laotian dishes that inspired this salad, they both contain a ton of red onion.
- Carrot – There’s already so much going on in this salad, but adding a few julienned carrots just adds a bit more crunch and sweetness. If you wanted to get crazy, you could also add cucumbers or celery to this salad, to both increase the crunch, and bump up the nutrition.
- Cherry tomatoes – I’m normally disappointed with the flavor of any other tomato that I purchase in a store. Small cherry or grape tomatoes seem to be the only ones with any flavor. Not a fan of tomates, leave them out. Got another kind of tomato on hand that you prefer, then chop it up and put it in here.
Thai-Inspired Napa and Noodle Salad with Spicy Ginger Lime Dressing
A crisp and refreshing Thai and Laotian inspired salad, that pulls your taste buds in every direction. Sweet, salty, sour, spicy… Your mouth won't know what hit it. In a good way.
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 birdseye chili, or red chili flake to taste
- 1 tablespoon roasted peanuts or 1 teaspoon natural peanut butter
- 1 ½ tablespoons sugar, divided
- 2 limes, juiced
- 3 tablespoons Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or low sodium soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons vegan fish sauce* (recipe below)
- 1 tablespoon sambal chili paste or sriracha
- 1 ½ to 2 ounces (about ½ cup when minced) fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
- 1 large green onion, both whites and greens, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces thin rice noodles, dry, cooked according to package directions
- 1/2 large head (18 to 20 ounces) Napa cabbage
- ½ large red onion, sliced into thin slivers
- 1 medium carrot, julienned
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup cilantro leaves (the stems can be minced and added to the dressing)
- 6 ounces firm or silken tofu**, cut into ½ inch cubes
- ¼ cup (50 g) roasted and salted peanuts, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Using a mortar and pestle, crush and grind the garlic, birdseye chili, peanuts, and ½ tablespoon of sugar into a rough paste. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can use a small food processor; pulsing ingredients until they are very finely minced. Add the remaining dressing ingredients and mix until the sugar is completely dissolved. Set aside.
- Fully cook and drain the rice noodles. Rinse them under cold water until they are cooled-off completely. Place the noodles in a large bowl and cover them with cold water. Set aside.
- Cut the Napa cabbage into quarters lengthwise, and then slice those quarters into thin ribbons. Place the cut cabbage onto a large serving platter, and top with slivered red onions, and julienned carrots.
- Using a large fork, pick up a portion of the rice noodles out of the water, and twirl them around the tines of the fork. Use the palm of your hand to help guide them, and form them into small “nests” of noodles. Place the nests on top of the cabbage.
- Cover the top of the salad with halved cherry tomatoes, fresh cilantro, cubed tofu, chopped peanuts, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. Serve with tongs or a large serving spoon, with dressing on the side.
*I have purchased vegan fish sauce from Asian markets, and it’s pretty good. How could it not be “good” when it’s pretty much just water and MSG? The measurements above are for a store-bought vegan fish sauce. If you are using my homemade fish sauce from the recipe below. then use 2 tablespoons Bragg’s and 4 tablespoons homemade vegan fish sauce.
** Fried tofu is also great on this salad. You can use already fried tofu from an Asian maret (crisped up in an air fryer), or make your own using one of My RECIPES.
Vegan Fish Sauce
- 4 cups filtered water
- 1/4 cup Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, low sodium soy sauce, or tamari
- 1/4 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 sheet toasted nori (for sushi)
- 1 tablespoon salt
Add all ingredients to a pot on high heat, and bring to a boil. Turn off the stove, cover, and allow to steep for an hour. Remove nori. Return the pot to a boil, and then allow the liquid to reduce to two cups. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature before straining and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
If you over-reduce, just add a bit more water until it reaches 2 cups.