A scrumptious, easy recipe tends to fly around the world as swiftly as a bald-faced lie*, but sometimes passing recipes around is a bit like playing Broken Telephones. By the time a fabulous formula falls into the inbox of the ten thousandth cook who's received it, the recipe - and the tale behind it - has lost something in translation.
Consider the Neiman-Marcus Cookie recipe (now an infamous Internet urban legend), the Ultimate Fruit Cake Recipe, and the repulsive Bacon Explosion.
This recipe, for a cool shredded-cabbage salad topped with crunchy fried Heinz two-minute noodles, did the rounds two or three years ago, and was called, for some reason I cannot figure out, 'Hong Kong Salad'. I first tasted it at a dinner at my friend Margie's house, and it was so fresh, crunchy and unusual that I begged her to email me the recipe.
Which she had lost, so she typed it up from memory, as had the last five thousand cooks before her. And then I lost the recipe too, so I made up my own version, and of course it just didn't taste the same. Plus, we couldn't finish the bowl: it was lovely eaten fresh, but by the next morning it had become the Soggy Leftover No One Wants to Eat.
I remembered this recipe today as I was staring glumly into the much-depleted vegetable drawer of my fridge, trying to find something nice to make for supper. My choice were: two carrots as wizened as goblins' fingers, five weeping cherry tomatoes, a pack of mange-tout, a bunch of fresh coriander, and two crisp little baby cabbages.
The cabbages eagerly held up their leaves, and I decided to try to recreate the recipe, and to improve on it.
The original salad, I seem to recall, had a dressing that involved using the little foiled pack of spices that comes with a block of 'Oriental' Heinz two-minute noodles. My cupboard is bulging with instant noodles - I have two teenage sons - but I draw the line at actually eating ancient spice-dust.
Instead, I raided one of my favourite new cookbooks, the brilliant Reuben Cooks: Food is Time Travel, and adapted Reuben Riffel's chilli-lime dressing.
This salad should be assembled at the very last minute, so its toppings are piping hot and crunchy.
Shredded Cabbage Salad with Chilli-Lime Dressing, Crunchy Noodles and Refried Peanuts
For the chilli-lime dressing:
1 fresh green chilli, seeds removed and very finely chopped (or more, to taste)
1 fresh red chilli, seeds removed and very finely chopped
3 T (45 ml) white caster sugar
3 T (45 ml) Thai fish sauce
3 T (45 ml) Chinese rice wine vinegar
4 T (60 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice (lemon juice will do)
For the salad:
2 baby cabbages (or half a big cabbage)
1 punnet (about 2 cups) sugarsnap peas or snow peas ( (mange-tout)
a handful of chopped fresh coriander (cilantro or dhania)
For the garnish:
1/2 cup (125 ml) sunflower or vegetable oil
1 packet of two-minute noodles (that is, one block)
1/4 cup (60 ml) peanuts (optional)
First make the dressing. Put the green and red chillies, the sugar, the fish sauce and the rice vinegar into a saucepan. Set over a high heat and bring to the boil. Boil for one minute, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature. Stir in the lime or lemon juice and set aside.
Halve the baby cabbages vertically and cut a triangular notch to remove the white stalky bits. Using a mandolin or a razor-sharp knife, cut the cabbage into very fine shreds. Make a stack of peas and cut them, on a sharp diagonal, into fine slices. Put the cabbage, the peas and the coriander into a salad bowl and toss well.
Ten minutes before you serve the salad, heat the oil in a small saucepan. Put a few pieces of absorbent kitchen paper on a plate. When the oil is good and hot roughly crumble the block of noodles into the oil, and fry for 30 seconds or two, or until just beginning to change colour. (**see important note, below) Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon, shake well, and tip onto the kitchen paper to drain. Now put the peanuts into the hot oil and fry for about 30 seconds and then remove, before they change colour, and drain on the kitchen paper.
Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well. Scatter the hot, crispy noodles and peanuts over the salad, and serve immediately.
Serves six, as a starter or side dish.
* "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on." - attributed to Winston Churchill.
** You can test whether the oil is hot enough by dropping a shred of dried noodle into it. If the oil bubbles energetically around the bit of noodle, and it turns golden within 15 seconds, the oil is hot enough. Remove the noodles and the peanuts before they turn golden brown, as they carry on browning after you've taken them out of the oil.