I make no claims to authenticity with this recipe. I have freely adapted traditional elements to suit my personal preferences and what I am likely to have on hand at home. For example, I am not a huge fan of lettuce, but I am nuts about kale, so I swapped out the usual lettuce for raw, shredded Lacinato kale. So, canonical or not, since finding the right caramel tofu recipe and the best vegetarian nuoc mam, I have eaten this dish for every lunch this week and am sad that I have run out of ingredients before Friday.
The vegetarian nuoc mam recipe comes from (unsurprisingly) Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The first recipe I tried, from the New York Times had way too much lime and sugar. The balance was totally off. Madison's version suits my palate perfectly. I didn't have any chiles around, so I omitted them, and it was still delicious. Madison specifies mushroom soy sauce in her recipe, and I'm sure that would be great, but as mine had expired years ago, I opted for our usual Nama shoyu and it was just fine.
There are no hard and fast rules as to what veggies to use and what proportions. That's one of the nice things about making this kind of dish. Instead of giving amounts, instead I'll just list the things I like to put in my bowl. The vegetarian nuoc mam makes enough sauce for about four generous servings.
Vegetarian Nuoc Mam (enough for 4 servings)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 serrano chiles, minced (optional)
2 TBSP light brown sugar (I bet palm sugar would be great, too)
2 TBSP fresh lime juice
1/4 c. rice wine vinegar
1/4 c. soy sauce
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Ideal to let sit for an hour or so before using to let the flavors blend.
Noodle Salad (adapt portions to the number of persons served and preference)
Rice vermicelli, softened and drained according to package directions
Lettuce or kale, washed and shredded
Carrots in matchsticks or shredded (you could briefly cook carrots if desired)
Cucumber (peeled and seeded) in matchsticks or shredded
Fresh Thai or regular basil leaves, shredded
Fresh mint leaves, shredded
Roasted, salted peanuts, chopped
Vegetarian Nuoc Mam to taste
Assemble all ingredients in a large bowl, toss with vegetarian nuoc mam and top with a few squares of caramel tofu