If you’ve ever tried to recreate a dish you tasted in a foreign country, you probably felt that it just didn’t taste as good at home as when you were abroad. While it’s true that there’s nothing like being there, in the case of Thai salads, it’s entirely possible to create great, authentic-tasting fare at home, without having to cross the world.
The unusual and exciting nature of Thai food comes from a complex interplay of layered flavors. A Thai salad is a great example of this flavor layering—one dish can taste sweet, tart, and spicy all at once, with chewy, crunchy, and soft textures all playing against each other. With a basic understanding of these flavor-building principles, you too can recreate authentic, vibrant Thai food—in this case, a beef salad, a shrimp salad, and a rice salad—that will taste as good as or better than anything you’ve ever had in any Thai restaurant (well, except mine, I hope).
Layer textures and flavors
All Thai salads begin with a simple dressing upon which you can build. From there, you begin adding flavors and adding textures.
Mix a dressing based on a sour-salty-sweet trio. I start with the classic blend of lime, fish sauce, and sugar. I create another layer of complexity by adding something spicy, like roasted chiles. Next comes a fruity note, maybe tamarind. You can get even more complex and layer on an additional creamy element, like unsweetened coconut milk.
For texture, balance the primary salad ingredients with supporting ingredients. For the Shrimp & Pomelo Salad, I started with soft pomelo and chewy shrimp. Then I added crispy fried shallots, as well as crunchy toasted coconut flakes and crushed peanuts. The idea is to combine a variety of contrasting textures, the more contrasts, the more layers of complexity. Aim for different textures: soft, chewy, crisp, crunchy. After that, you can embellish, if you like, with garnishes that are herbal and clean-tasting (such as fresh mint or basil), smoky (such as fried dried chiles), fruity (lime zest, star fruit, or apple), or earthy (cilantro leaves and stems).
Easy-to-find substitutions give delicious results
If you can't find pomelo (at right), grapefruit is a good stand-in.
If you live near an Asian grocer, you’ll find all the authentic ingredients you’ll need for these salads. But if not, no problem. Other than fish sauce and lemongrass—essentials of Thai cooking for which there are no substitutes—it’s easy to make western substitutions that will give you very successful and delicious results. And fish sauce and lemongrass are becoming quite easy to find in big supermarkets.