I added Chinese roast pork (char siu) to mine. (You can do the same by marinating boneless pork loin in jarred char siu sauce, or make your own.) Boneless chicken, crispy tofu, or cooked shrimp, would work well, too.
Often nems (spring rolls) are added to salads like this. Most Asian shops sell them, or you can make your own (I linked to some recipes, below), if you want to use them. Molly adds fried shallots to hers, which you can also get already made in Asian stores, although she slyly admits the canned onions sold in supermarkets are fine, too. But like the fried spring rolls, those can be optional as well. I took it upon myself to fry up both because I was feeling adventurous.
To do so, heat an inch (3-4cm) or so of vegetable oil in a saucepan to between 275ºF to 325ºF (135ºC to 160ºC), then drop in the spring rolls, turning them as they cook. When well-browned, remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. (You can instead bake the spring rolls by rubbing or brushing them with vegetable oil, and baking them in a 375ºF/190ºC oven on a baking sheet, turning them a couple of times, until crisp – about 10 minutes or so.) Fry the shallots by peeling 4 to 6 shallots, and slicing them thin. Drop them in hot oil, stirring them frequently, until browned and crisp. Drain on paper towels. (The shallots can be made a few days in advance. Once cool, store them in an airtight container at room temperature.)
Authenticity probably dictates using a Thai bird’s eye chile, but I used the red one shown in the post since that was what was available, which was blazing hot. So adjust accordingly to what’s available and your desired level of heat. The sauce is called Nuoc cham and various recipes abound, with different amounts of fish sauce, lime juice, and sweetness. Some have garlic, while others don’t. I tried it both ways, and decided that the garlic took the sauce in another direction. So I’ll leave that up to you.
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) water
1 Thai bird’s eye chile minced, or 1 teaspoon minced red chiles (or to taste)
optional: 1 small clove of garlic, peeled and minced
8 ounces (225g) thin rice noodles
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
Half a cucumber, peeled, seeded, and thinly sliced
8 to 12 ounces (225g to 340g) cooked meat or tofu
A handful of fresh mint, cilantro, or Thai basil, or a combination
1/3 cup (50g) roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
8 to 12 ounces (225g to 340g) cooked meat, shrimp, or tofu
optional: 4-5 fried spring rolls
optional: fried shallots
1. To make the sauce, in a small bowl or jar, mix the lime juice with 2 tablespoons fish sauce, brown sugar, water, minced chiles, and garlic, if using. Mix well, then taste, adding more fish sauce, if desired.
(The sauce can be made up to one day ahead, and left at room temperature. If using garlic, add that shortly before serving.)
2. To make the salads, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and cook until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately rinse the noodles very well with cold water. Shake the colander to remove excess water, then spread the noodles out on a clean kitchen towel to cool.
3. Divide the noodles into two or three serving bowls. Top each with carrots, cucumbers, and meat or tofu. Coarsely chop, or tear, the mint, coriander, or basil into pieces and strew the herbs over the tops of the salads.
4. If serving with spring rolls, fry the rolls, then slice the warm rolls into bite-size pieces and arrange them around the noodles. Add fried shallots, if using, then serve with sauce on the side, letting people help themselves.