2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 1/2 pound total
1 teaspoon salt
1 small or 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
About 3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1 small head green cabbage, about 1 pound, quartered through the stem end, cored, and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide ribbons
1 carrot, peeled and finely shredded
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander (rau răm) or cilantro leaves
1 or 2 Thai or serrano chiles, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 pinch salt
3 tablespoons fish sauce
6 tablespoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
Fill a small saucepan half full with water, add the salt, and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Drop in the chicken breasts. When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly. Let stand for 20 minutes. The chicken should be firm yet still yield a bit to the touch. Remove the chicken from the pan and reserve the light stock for another use or discard. When cool enough to handle, shred with your fingers into thin pieces, pulling the meat along its natural grain. Put the chicken in a large bowl and add the cabbage, carrot, and herbs.
Meanwhile, put the onion in a small bowl and add the white vinegar just to cover. Set aside for 15 minutes; the vinegar will reduce the harshness of the onion. Drain well and add to the bowl with the vegetables and chicken.
Using a mortar and pestle, mash the chile, garlic, sugar, and salt together into a fragrant orange-red paste. This releases and combines the oils from the chile and garlic. Scrape the paste into a bowl and add the fish sauce and rice vinegar, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt and to combine well.
Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss to mix well. The salad will wilt slightly. Taste and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing the sour, sweet, salty, and spicy. Transfer to a serving plate, leaving any unabsorbed dressing behind, and serve.
YIELD: Serves 4 to 6
SOURCE: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (Ten Speed Press, 2006) by Andrea Nguyen, www.vietworldkitchen.com.