Why It Works
- Hot, sour, spicy, and pungent flavors combine to form the dressing. Pounding the garlic and chiles in a mortar and pestle releases more flavors than a food processor or hand-chopping does.
- Cooking the meat to medium instead of medium-rare or rare gives it a better texture when served cold.
- Plenty of fresh herbs add flavor right at the end. Fried lemongrass adds crunch and lemongrass flavor without the fibrous strands raw lemongrass leaves behind.
The word "salad" takes on a pretty broad meaning in Thailand. Everybody knows larb, the salad of cooked ground meat dressed with fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice, flavored with chiles, garlic, herbs, and ground roasted rice (or, if you're in Northern Thailand, try it with toasted spices and pork blood!). It's everywhere in its native Isan, and you'll find it with no problem in Bangkok, Southern Thailand, or every Isan restaurant in New York.
But in Isan, larb is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to meaty dishes served cold.
Nong Khai, a small town in Northeastern Thailand on the banks of the Mekong river just across the border from Laos, is not on the top of most tourists' must-visit lists. Being a border town, it gets a fair share of backpacker traffic, mostly just from folks passing through to Vientiane, on the Lao side.
Those folks are making a mistake.
Some people do stop in town for a night or two, and most of them end up hitting the mosquito-addled river-side restaurants that serve up mediocre Isan and Vietnamese food.
Those folks are also making a mistake.
Here's what they should be doing: walking just a few meters away from the river to the center of town, right at the intersection of Prajak Sillapakhom Alley and Janjobtit Road, and grabbing one of the plastic seats at DD Restaurant.
You can't miss it. It's the place that's packed with locals day and night. Over the course of our two-night stay in Nong Khai, we ended up eating there four times, and it was this that first got us hooked:
The menu at DD is long, but the salads are where you want to start. You'll find salads ranging from grilled fatty sausages tossed with young ginger and peanuts to crispy pork belly packed with Thai basil and mint; cold marinated mushrooms with toasted rice powder to deep-fried shredded duck doused in a chile and fish-sauce dressing. It's all ridiculously tasty stuff. I'd put Nong Khai on my re-visit list for the salads alone.
But what those salads really did for me was open my eyes to what Thai salads can be. It doesn't start and end with larb or the sliced beef and cucumber salad we seem to see everywhere these days. So long as you've got a good mix of textures with big punch-you-in-the-mouth flavor, anything is fair game.
This opened up worlds of possibilities when I hit the supermarket back home. I've made Thai salads with sliced tomatillos and chicken. Roasted peppers and summer squash. Corn and tomatoes. It takes a little finessing to get the flavors right, but it can be done to great effect.
This particular salad, made with sliced beef, red onions, tomatoes, and herbs, may at first seem like it's all about that sliced beef, but it's not. The real MVPs? There are two of them. The first is the dressing.
A Mortar and Pestle Dressing
The ingredients are pretty straightforward and hit that classic Thai sour-salty-sweet-spicy flavor combination: garlic, dried and fresh chiles, lime juice, fish sauce, and brown sugar. That's it.
But the real key is in how its formed. A mortar and pestle is one of those kitchen tools you don't recognize the value of until you actually start using it. Pounding aromatics in a mortar and pestle results in sauces, dressings, and curry pastes that are far more flavorful than what you can get out of any modern piece of equipment.
Sound like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to you? Believe me—as a born skeptic and a proud embracer of technology, I'd love it if my food processor or blender could compete, but time after time in blind taste tests from everything from guacamole to pesto, the mortar and pestle produces results that are superior in both texture and flavor.
For this dressing, I smash up some garlic cloves, dried Thai chiles (you can use a combination of red pepper flakes and ancho chile powder if you can't find Thai chiles), and a few fresh Thai chiles until it forms a rough paste.
From there I add brown sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce directly to the bowl. The mortar and pestle is a great place for mixing up ingredients that need to be dissolved, like the sugar. Its pounding and grinding action makes short work of it.
Make sure to always taste your sauce as you go. You want it to have a good balance of fiery heat (Issan salads are not for the meek!), savory/salty flavors from the fish sauce, a good level of sweetness to take the edge off the chiles, and bright freshness from the lime juice.
Crispy Fried Lemongrass for the Win
The second MVP: fried lemongrass. Fried shallots and fried garlic are common additions to Thai salads and ones that I'm intimately familiar with (I fry off a huge load of those shallots every other month or so then try to keep them hidden from my wife for as long as possible). But fried lemongrass was a revelation to me. You get all the mild lemony aroma of lemongrass, but instead of fibrous strands, you end up with crisp bits that add texture to the salad.
On top of that, the lemongrass-scented oil that you wind up with is great for searing the steak that goes into the salad (and you can save the rest for stir-fries and dressings).
Preparing the Steak
For the steak, I like to use a relatively inexpensive cut like flatiron, though you can use any tender, full-flavored cut like hanger, skirt, or even tri-tip. The key is a smoking-hot pan (or grill, if you prefer) to get some color on it.
When cooking steak for a cold salad, I prefer to cook my steak to medium, and I would suggest you do the same, even if you generally prefer your meat on the rare side. Cold rare meat has a mushy texture, whereas cold medium meat retains plenty of moisture while still delivering a pleasantly meaty texture.
I fry my steak in the lemongrass oil, let it rest until completely cooled, and then slice it very thinly against the grain.
With the dressing, the fried lemongrass, and the steak, it's just a matter of throwing it all together and adjusting the seasonings.
If you've done this right, you should end up with a salad that's simultaneously blisteringly hot and refreshingly cool. Every time you take a bite, it should slowly transition into just the right amount of pain, thereby compelling you to take the next bite to cool your mouth back down until there's nothing left but an empty plate and all those wonderful memories.
What, doesn't everyone feel that way when they eat salad?
1/2 cup (120ml) vegetable oil
1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed, bottom four inches only, sliced as thinly as possible into rounds (20g)
2 flat iron, flank, skirt, or hanger steaks, about 12 ounces (340g) total (see note)
Ground white or black pepper
3 medium cloves garlic (15g)
1 teaspoon dried Thai red chile powder, plus more to taste (see note)
1 small green Thai chile or 1/2 small Serrano chile, finely chopped
1 tablespoon (15g) brown sugar, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50ml) fish sauce, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50ml) fresh lime juice from 2 limes, plus more to taste
1/2 pint (180g) cherry tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 small red onion (3 ounces; 85g), thinly sliced
1 cup (15g) roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup (12g) roughly chopped fresh basil
In a small skillet, combine vegetable oil and lemongrass and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until lemongrass is golden brown and crisp, about 6 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer set in a small saucepan. Transfer crisp lemongrass to a paper towel-lined plate and season with salt. Set aside.
To cook on a stovetop: Season steak generously with salt and pepper. Transfer 2 teaspoons of reserved lemongrass oil to a large cast iron or stainless steel skillet (reserve remaining lemongrass oil for another use or discard, see note). Heat over high heat until lightly smoking. Cook steak, turning frequently, until well browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 125°F (52°C) for medium, 3 to 8 minutes total depending on thickness. Transfer steak to a cutting board, set aside, and proceed to step 4.
Alternatively, to cook on a grill: Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Season steak generously with salt and pepper. Place steak directly on hot side of grill and cook, turning frequently, until well browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 125°F (52°C) for medium, 3 to 8 minutes total depending on thickness. Transfer steak to a cutting board and set aside.
In a mortar and pestle, combine garlic, pepper flakes, and Thai chiles and pound into a fine paste (see note). Add sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice, and pound until the sugar is dissolved. Taste dressing and add more sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, or pepper flakes to taste. It should be strongly spicy, sweet, salty, and acidic.
Thinly slice steak against the grain and transfer to a large bowl along with any juices that have accumulated on the cutting board. Add fried lemongrass, tomatoes, onion, mint, basil, and dressing. Toss to combine. Serve immediately.
An equivalent weight of flap, tenderloin, strip, or tri-tip steak can be used in place of flat iron, flank, skirt, or hanger steak. Even for folks who prefer rare meat generally, I recommend cooking the steak to medium for cold recipes like this salad. The steak in this recipe can be cooked in a skillet indoors or, alternatively, prepared on a grill. See Step 3 for grilling instructions.
Dried Thai red chile powder can be found in Asian markets. Alternatively, use a combination of 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes and 1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder.
Reserved lemongrass oil can be used in stir-fries or salad dressings.
I strongly recommend using a good mortar and pestle for the dressing. If you do not have a mortar and pestle, dressing can be made by combining garlic, pepper flakes, fresh chiles, brown sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice in a blender and blending until a rough purée is formed, scraping down sides as necessary.
Mortar and pestle, cast iron skillet
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 12g||15%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||18%|
|Total Carbohydrate 12g||4%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||10%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 21mg||105%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|