My Thai: Spicy Tuna Salad with Lemongrass and Young Ginger
My grandmother used this recipe to teach me how to cook when I was in grade school. More specifically, she used this recipe to get me to practice my knife skills. When you get to the recipe, you'll see why: if there's any "cooking" involved at all in this recipe, it's the slicing. Looking back, this is a perfect way to teach young kids how to cook and slice different ingredients without dumbing things down or overwhelming them.
In a culture that values intricate fruit and vegetable carving, and expects you to know how to peel and slice a ripe mango with nothing but a sharp knife, kids are taught knife skills very early on. That may be so in other cultures as well; it's certainly the case in the Thai culture.
The only difference between Grandma's recipe and this one is that hers uses steamed whole Pla Tu (short-bodied mackerel or Rastrelliger brachysoma); this one uses—don't hate—canned tuna (despite the similarity of the names in Thai, which is purely coincidental linguistically, the two aren't identical), because it's easier to find. Besides, unlike whole mackerels, canned tuna doesn't require an extra (and laborious) step of picking out the many teeny tiny bones.
When we made Shrimp Fried Rice with Nam Prik Pao and Crispy Lemongrass, you've learned how to slice a lemongrass stalk and how to tell where the tender part ends and the tough and woody part begins. Today, we're moving on to another ingredient which is used quite a bit in Thai cooking, though not nearly as heavily as lemongrass: fresh ginger, or more precisely, young fresh ginger.
I'm letting out a sigh as I'm typing this because it has been a long time since I last spotted young ginger in the US. You know, the kind shown here with off-white (as opposed to yellow) non-fibrous flesh and mild, refreshing flavor. Young ginger is very mild; you can serve thin slices of it as a crudité to eat with a dip or relish.
If you can find young ginger in your area, by all means, use that. All you have to do is peel off the skins (optional, really, since they're so tender), with a sharp knife cut the flesh lengthwise into paper-thin slices, stack up the slices, and slice them lengthwise again into very fine matchsticks.
But if the only kind of ginger you can find is the mature, fibrous ginger with brown skins that is available pretty much everywhere, fret not; you can use that in this recipe as well. Be sure to choose ones that are as young as possible (this means the skins should be lighter in color and very taut). Follow the procedure described above. Then soak the ginger matchsticks in cold water, agitate them a little to help them release some of the juices, squeeze them dry, and repeat the process a few more times until the ginger is "tame" enough for you. Without this extra step, the ginger could be too overpowering in this recipe.
Then it's just a matter of mixing all the ingredients together and seasoning to taste. I trust that those who have followed this column and cooked along with me before have become experts in making Thai-style salad by now. Remember Spicy Shrimp and Green Apple Salad? Same deal. Add lime juice until it's sour enough. Add fish sauce until it's salty enough. Like fresh chilies? Add fresh chilies. Like dried chilies? You know what to do. (I much prefer fresh chilies in this recipe, by the way.) Most Thai salads are built this way. You know how to make one, you know how to make several.
You can serve this salad in lettuce cups as an appetizer or treat it as a main dish and eat it with warm jasmine rice.