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 chilies, 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 chili 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 to open my eyes as 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.
The ingredients are pretty straightforward and hit that classic Thai sour-salty-sweet-spicy flavor combination: garlic, dried and fresh chilies, 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 chilies (you can use a combination of red pepper flakes and ancho chili powder if you can't find Thai chilies), and a few fresh Thai chilies 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 chilies, and bright freshness from the lime juice.
The second MVP here is this:
That's right, 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).
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.
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?