It's a rare day that goes by when I don't cook something (or more likely, a dozen versions of the same thing with slight variations each time). Since leaving the U.S. nearly two months ago, though, I haven't cooked a single thing other than at the odd cooking class. I've been suffering from extreme withdrawal.
Luckily, this week, I have not one, not two, but at least THREE good reasons—let's call it four good reasons. Five good reasons to break that dry streak.*
- First off, Adri and I are finally staying in a place that has a kitchen. Our friends Yvonne and Hallam live in a gorgeous apartment near Singapore's Tanjong Pagar neighborhood, complete with pool and fully-functional kitchen (It better be, as it's where Yvonne, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America's Singapore branch, develops all of her awesome recipes).
- Second, as Yvonne and I used to be coworkers and roommates, we have a long history of cooking together. I'd be damned if I missed the opportunity to spend some time in the kitchen with one of my favorite people.
- Third, as Hallam and I used to be neighbors, he's got a long history of coming by to eat my food and pour me his booze. (See the second sentence of point two above for the rest.)
- Fourth, how could anyone not want to cook after taking a stroll through Singapore's Tekka Market in Little India, with its slew of fresh produce and exotic spices?
- Finally, ever since leaving Thailand, I've been itching to get into the kitchen to play around with some of the dishes and flavors that inspired me.
We ended up with a few things on the table. A pretty-darn-good green curry with chicken and bitter eggplant, an amazing wing-bean salad that Yvonne made, and this banana blossom and chicken salad.
Banana blossom and chicken salad is a not-uncommon dish found mostly in the Central Thai cooking of Bangkok. You won't find it on every street corner or every restaurant, but it shows up regularly enough. The classic version is made with poached shredded chicken, thinly sliced banana blossom, raw shallots, coconut, and a hot-sour-sweet dressing flavored with garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and fish sauce.
My version starts off similarly, but strays a bit. The first thing I did was to add a whole slew of fried shallots to the salad base. They lose some of their crispness once dressed, but in return they give it a unique sweet-savory flavor.
Seeing as I already had a wok with hot oil in it, why stop there? I added a bunch of garlic cloves which I'd quickly smashed in the mortar and pestle, as well as some thinly sliced lemongrass. I tried fried lemongrass for the first time in an amazing beef salad I had in Nong Khai on the NortheasternThai-Lao border. It has all the flavor of lemongrass, but with a much better texture.
In Chiang Mai, in Thailand's North, I had a similar experience with fried makrut lime leaves. Into the oil they went. Finally, I fried up some peanuts to form the flavor base for my dressing. This left me with a bowl full of fried goodies ("no Adri, those aren't for eating yet"), plus some flavorful frying oil to add to my dressing for extra flavor.
For the dressing, I decided to forgo the coconut milk—there's already plenty of richness going on here with the fried things—instead making a sweet-spicy paste of garlic, chilies, and palm sugar (props to Hallam for some epic mortar and pestle-pounding), then thinning it out with fresh Calamansi lime juice and sugar.
Next up: the chicken. I like the clean, tender shreds that chicken breast gives you, but it's important not to overcook it (especially with the slender chickens you find in Asia). The best way to do this is to start with a skin-on, bone-in breast half, cover it with cold water, bring it to a simmer, then cover it and let it sit until it's cooked through—about 145°F on an instant-read thermometer is what you're looking for.
The last thing you should prepare is the banana blossom (did you know banana trees have blossoms?). You can buy them in Asian or Indian supermarkets—they look like deep purple Nerf footballs. Like artichokes, they have a bitter astringency when eaten raw, and will quickly oxidize when sliced open and exposed to air. It's essential that you keep banana blossom submerged under acidulated water as soon as you slice it. I do this by filling a bowl with water and vinegar, and placing a clean kitchen towel over the top. This towel will keep everything submerged.
Though it's bitter when eaten straight after slicing, a 10-minute soak in cold water will wash away all of its astringency. You're left with a very mildly flavored, but nicely crunchy vegetable that forms an excellent salad base. (You should feel free to substitute it with cabbage if you can't find banana blossom.)
When making salads like this, it's important to dress things in the right order. I start with the chicken, which is the most absorptive and can benefit from a bit of extra time to soak up flavors between its fibers. Next I add the banana blossom along with a handful of fresh herbs (mint and cilantro). Finally, I add the fried things just before serving, saving some to sprinkle over the salad, so that they retain at least a hint of their crunchiness.
This is a salad that's pretty easy to like with accessible, clean flavors, lots of fried-ness, and that classic hot-sour-salty-sweet thing that marks many of Northeast and Central Thailand's greatest dishes. It's not quite traditional in execution, but the spirit is there, and it's even more fun to eat it with good friends.