Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries.
The idea of a salad with grilled meat, cilantro, and mint, dressed with a pungent mixture of fish sauce, chiles, sugar, and lime juice, is something I first discovered at a Thai restaurant where I live in Chicago. Known as larb in Thai and Laotian cuisine with variations throughout Asia, it's unlike any style of salad you'd encounter in Western cooking: for one, the dressing has no oil or fat in it whatsoever. Flipping through one of my favorite cookbooks of all time recently, Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, led me to this rendition.
Why I Picked This Recipe: Though I've ordered this type of salad at restaurants before, I've never tried it at home, and I was eager to play with Slater's proportions in the dressing: fish sauce for savory pungency, lime juice to brighten things up, sweet chile sauce for spiciness, and sugar to soften the edges. It's never made much sense to me at all how the flavor of that mixture can taste so round and balanced (though it's definitely pretty funky, so be warned). The list of ingredients, besides kaffir lime leaves, which can be omitted, was also not too difficult to procure.
What Worked: The dressing worked, big time. I also liked Slater's use of peppery watercress to significantly bulk out the vegetable component, while still keeping the fragrant mint and cilantro for authenticity.
What Didn't: The recipe called for sirloin steaks, and I was glad I went against that advice in favor of much fattier hanger steak; the dressing is strong and tart on its own, and I realized that the salad succeeds when the fat from the steak balances that out. So I would definitely suggest skirt, hanger, or a portion of chuck that's well-marbled. It doesn't need to be expensive, since it'll be sliced thinly against the grain after cooking.
Suggested Tweaks: The recipe calls for cucumber and tomato, but I didn't feel it added much, so leaving them out would be fine. And keep in mind that the dressing can be tinkered with quite a bit, so tweaking the proportions of ingredients to your taste is worth doing.
- 3 tablespoons juice from 2 limes
- 4 tablespoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
- 1 to 2 tablespoon sweet chile sauce, or another chile paste such as sambal
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 fresh red Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded, and minced
- 1 pound hanger, skirt, or other well-marbled steaks
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable
- 2 bunches watercress, tough stems removed
- 8 to 10 kaffir lime leaves, center stem removed, very thinly shredded (optional)
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped mint leaves
- 1 (4-inch) piece cucumber, cut into matchsticks
- 2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
- 2 large tomatoes, seeded and cut into thin wedges
Preheat a grill or broiler for the steaks.
While the grill or broiler heats up, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, chile sauce, and sugar in a small bowl. Stir well to dissolve the sugar, then add the minced red chile. Taste and adjust the levels of each ingredient as desired. It should be tart, sweet, and funky.
Season the steak generously with salt and pepper and rub with the oil. Grill, turning once, until well-charred but still rosy pink within, 5-8 minutes depending on the thickness. Allow them to rest at least 5 minutes after cooking, then slice against the grain into thin pieces.
While the steaks are grilling, combine the watercress, cilantro, mint leaves, cucumber, cucumber, carrot, and tomatoes.
When the steaks are done and sliced, add them to the salad and toss everything together with the dressing. Serve immediately while the steak is still hot.