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Vibrant Thai Salads

Use traditional Thai flavor-layering principles for perfectly balanced, intensely flavored salads

Fine Cooking Issue 33
Photos: Amy Albert
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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 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.

If you can’t find pomelo (at right), grapefruit is a good stand-in.

Good substitutes for Asian ingredients

Flavor or texture Asian ingredient Western substitution
bitter/crunchy banana blossom Belgian endive
salty/dry bonito flakes hot-smoked bluefish, trout, or salmon
herby/leafy cilantro celery leaves
tart/crunchy green mango Granny Smith apple
fragrant/astringent kaffir lime leaf grated lime zest
sweet palm sugar maple syrup or light brown sugar
tangy/pulpy pomelo grapefruit
briny/smooth shrimp paste dried, salted anchovies
briny fermented or dried, salted fish hot-smoked salmon, trout, or bluefish
fruity tamarind cherry juice concentrate, or dried apricots, softened in hot water, then puréed

Work ahead, assemble last-minute

These recipes do involve a lot of chopping and pounding. But trust me—the results are worth it. And you can do most of the work ahead.

Dressings keep for weeks, as long as they’re tightly covered and stored in the refrigerator. So do all the crispy-fried and roasted ingredients, such as shallots, garlic, and dried chiles. Cook shrimp and meats a day or two ahead and refrigerate them. Slice all fruits and vegetables (except for apple and endive, which quickly turn brown) a few hours ahead and slip them into a zip-top bag with a moist paper towel to keep them fresh.

Intensely flavored Thai salads taste best with rice

You’ll notice that I’ve included cooked rice in all these recipes. This is because the salads are intensely flavored and thus always eaten with rice. (Thai cooks always serve rice with meals, much like the way western cooks serve bread.)

And a final note on flavors as you build these salads: I advise you to taste as you go. Thai fish sauce is strong and briny, so start with a small amount and adjust the seasoning as the dish develops. As for spice, I’ve given a range in these recipes. Again, it’s important to taste as you go and be conservative until you get a feel for the recipe. At a traditional Thai table, chile powder and chile sauce are always set on the side with other condiments, so that you can season the dish according to your taste.


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