I haven’t written a lot about Thai salad in the past. From what I remember so far it’s only been Yum Woon Sen, the bean thread salad and if you count Som Tam and Larb as salad then that’s it. Don’t think that the Thais don’t eat salad; they do. They eat a lot of salad, in fact. I just haven’t gotten to the salad as a series yet.
One reason I think Thai’s variety of salads is still not so well known to the western world yet is…they are usually darn spicy! If you’ve ever been to Thailand and ordered a salad, mistaken that it would be the “salad” you’re used to—a pile of vegetables with dressing—you would either be disappointed because it burned your tongue until you couldn’t taste anything else, or it was nothing at all like what you consider a salad.
Our “Yum”, or Thai salads, are so much different. First of all, there is no oil in our salad dressing. Maybe there will be some coconut milk, or some “Nam Phrik Pao”, the chili jam which is a Thai condiment used in many recipes such as “clams with chili jam sauce”, Tom Yum or Tom kha. And any vegetables, if used, will quickly wilt if you don’t eat them right away.
Second, some Yum or salad dishes might not contain any vegetables, but some do. Look at the recipe for “Glass Noodle Salad” I posted here. The vegetables are only green onion and cilantro But Som Tam has a lot of vegetables in it. It depends.
The Thai have a few different names to call their salads: Yum ยำ, Plah พล่า, Tam ตำ, Larb ลาบ. These are all considered salad. And we don’t eat them before the meal, we eat them together with other dishes, and of course steamed rice, which calms the spice down quite a lot.
A traditional Thai full course meal always consisted of every taste: sour, sweet, some yummy fat, and salty. In Thai they would say, Preaw=sour, Wan=sweet, Mun=rich taste, Khem=salty. A full-course menu would have 4-5 different dishes that follow these parameters. These are the meals served at a middle class home all the way up to the royal court, but not at a poor household or a country home.
Unfortunately, this tradition no longer holds in the modern Thai household, and hasn’t for some time. I didn’t grow up with this myself, even though we had at the least 2-3 items on the dining table, but they weren’t all calculated based on this flavor parameter anymore. After I’m done introducing you to many different kinds of Thai foods, I can show you the full-course meal of the Thais in the mid-Rattanakosin era, but I can’t do it now. I mention it so you would understand where is the slot for the salad in the full array of Thai dishes.
Yum is normally in the sour-tasting category, to help break up the richness of fried foods or curries in coconut milk.
This time I’m going to give you a recipe for Yum Neau Yang, or grilled beef salad.
This was a blog reader request. He had eaten Yum Neau at a restaurant in his home town in the US. His expectation of this dish is going to be slightly different than the authentic beef salad.
As I’ve explained previously, Thai restaurants outside Thailand serve things that cater to their customers’ expectations. If they stay authentic with every dish, their business might have less chance of surviving.
Authentic Yum Neau Yang actually looks more like a strip steak than a salad.
Wait, I know someone is about to ask if Thai people really eat beef or steak, right?
Of course we do. May be it’s not as often as pork or chicken, but we do eat beef. Our beef is not as premium nor as tender as American beef, so we’ve had to find a way to make it chewable somehow. So we serve beef already cut up. We won’t normally serve food that has to be cut at the table, as I mentioned in Thai eating etiquette.
Why do we call this steak “salad”? Because we toss them with a dressing, and in Thai culinary rules, yum or salad doesn’t have to be vegetable dominant.
Yum Neau is one of the recipes that makes me miss my father. This is another “drunkard dish”. (He drank a bit.) It is very commonly served at bars so people can eat this while they drink. The taste of this dish is so intense even alcohol can’t dull your taste buds enough to not taste it.
The reader who requested this told me that the dish he ate had some cucumber in it, too. Probably because vegetables are cheaper than meat, and restaurants can increase the volume of the dish easily by adding them and, on top of that, the restaurant might be trying to please farang customers who are not used to ordering beef salad and getting a sliced beef strip steak instead.
Well, if any bar in Thailand serves this dish to a customer with cucumber tossed with beef (some here even add tomatoes…aghhhh), that bar would be considered “stingy” and there may never be a re-visit to that bar, or at the least never a re-order. Have you ever seen any drunkard who wants to eat vegetables after getting drunk? I always want to eat noodles in hot broth at the end of a drinking night.
Anyhow, it’s not so wrong to eat this dish with vegetables. Thai people would eat this dish with vegetables, but not toss them in with the salad. They would add the vegetables on the side, so the veggies won’t get soggy from all the condiments. Remember, there is no oil in Thai salad. We like to eat raw vegetables crunchy.
OK, the agreement between you and me is: I am going to give you the authentic recipe for Thai grilled beef salad, but if you are “Mai Rak Dee ไม่รักดี” (go find a translator!…I’m not telling you what I just said) and want to add vegetables, you can do that on your own. (And don’t forget to adjust the amount of the dressing accordingly, too.)
Beef (I chose ribeye because I need some fat to make the beef flavorful and tender. You choose what you want.) 8 oz.
Lime juice 3 tablespoons
Fish sauce 2 tablespoons
Sugar (I used granulated sugar, but palm sugar is okay, too) 1 tablespoon
Garlic, sliced thinly 1 clove (or as much as you want)
Shallot or onion sliced thinly 2-3 tablespoons
Lemongrass (Must have, you can’t do without it. If you have the tip part left from making the curry paste, you can use that) slice them thinly or you will be sorry, 2-3 tablespoons
Mint leaves 1 cup
(Optional) Green onion
(Optional) Dried chili flakes or fresh chopped up chilis, as much or as little as you want. I would prefer none, but that’s not right.
Decorative or side vegetables:
Your choice, pretty much. I would suggest cucumber and lettuce but decorative is decorative, so I can’t pick your favorite garnish vegetables for you.
1) Season the beef with salt and pepper.
2) Grill the beef to your liking.
Do not cut the beef yet!
3) Arrange the plate, squeeze the lime, slice the lemongrass, onion and garlic, pick the mint leaves off the stems. There are many things to do so DO NOT TOUCH THE BEEF YET.
4) Mix the condiments together: fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. This is your dressing. Taste it and adjust it to your personal preference.
5) Okay, the beef must have cooled down by now. You can slice it.
6) Toss the sliced beef with herbs, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, mint leaves, cilantro, green onion (if used) and the dressing.
7) Served it over a bed of lettuce and sliced cucumber (or put them on the side where they belong 😉 )
8) Finish eating it within an hour of preparation would be best.