When I’m in the mood for something refreshing and satisfying, nothing compares to a Thai salad, or a yam (pronounced YUM). Whether it’s the minty beef salad shown here, or a traditional green papaya salad, or any of the dozens of other varieties of Thai salads, the sweet-salty-sour flavors of a yam are deliciously addictive. When I’m in Thailand, I can’t pass by a street vendor who’s selling them, and back home in Sacramento, I rarely go a week without making one.
Thai salads differ from the concept of a traditional Western salad in a few notable ways. First of all, they don’t depend on a big mound of greens. Instead, one ingredient is usually the star—it could be fish, chicken, or beef, or a vegetable or fruit like green mango—and a cast of supporting ingredients are chosen for color and contrasting textures and flavors. Dressings for Thai salads are usually made without oil and are assertively seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and often hot chiles, giving the yam its classic flavor profile and distinctive character.
Typically, Thai salads are served with cabbage leaves or greens and enjoyed either as a snack or as a component of a larger meal. But the beef salad I’m introducing to you here is so quick to make that it would be a natural for a weeknight supper, served alongside a bowl of steaming jasmine rice.
The best Thai salads combine contrasting textures and colors
A typical dressing for a Thai salad might contain lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and chiles, but the cook would then layer on other elements for contrast and complexity. In the Thai beef salad, lemongrass supplies a citrusy, clean aroma, fresh herbs add a green accent that complements the red chiles, and ground toasted rice gives a pleasant, surprising crunch. Here’s a little more about each of these ingredients.
Lemongrass gives a delicate citrusy fragrance and flavor to dishes. Thai cooks use it prolifically in salads, curries, marinades, broths, and soups. Lemongrass is sold in supermarkets, but Asian markets tend to carry better quality stalks. Choose the freshest, heaviest, and most tender stalks—heft is a good sign of moisture. Avoid those that are dried at the edges. Store lemongrass in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin of the fridge, where it should stay fresh for two to three weeks. If you don’t use it all within that time, freeze it. To use lemongrass, peel off and discard the outer two or three layers of the stalk until you get to the tender core. Then cut off 5 or 6 inches of the woody top (reserve them to infuse a soup or stew). How you cut the lemongrass depends on how you plan to use it:
• For salads, slice the stalk into very thin rings.
• For marinades, chop the rings into a fine mince or pound it in a mortar.
• For curries, stews, or broths, cut the stalk into 2- or 3-inch pieces. Bruise the pieces with the back of a knife or a pestle and add them to the pot.
Mint and cilantro. Without these herbs, Thai beef salad wouldn’t be nearly as lively and refreshing. In Thailand, fresh mint, particularly spearmint, is harvested young, when the leaves are no bigger than a penny. The whole upper sprigs are used, stems and all. Likewise, Thai cooks buy cilantro when it’s still a young plant, no taller than 6 inches, and they use the entire plant, including the roots, which often go into soups. The stems and small flowering buds of cilantro are even more flavorful than the leaves. Thai cooks aren’t shy about quantity when using fresh herbs, especially in salads. A typical salad for two might call for more than a cup of mixed fresh herbs.
Ground toasted rice. The simple technique for toasting dry rice on the stovetop adds a nutty crunch to beef salad and other dishes. To make it, you cook sticky rice, also called glutinous rice, in a dry skillet set over moderate heat until the grains turn light golden. Then you grind it into a coarse meal (a coffee grinder works fine). Ground toasted rice is also used as a binder and flavor enhancer in Southeast Asian sausages, and in Vietnam, it’s added to shredded pork and fermented fish. In the recipe, the rice adds an unexpected texture to the beef salad. It’s reminiscent of finely chopped nuts but with a more subtle flavor and a harder crunch. Most people love it, but the salad is also delicious without it.