What internationally are known as Thai salads, with a few exceptions, fall in to four main methods of preparation. In Thai cuisine these are called Yam, Tam, Lap and Phla. A few additional dishes can also be regarded as being a salad.
Overview of Thai Salads
Thai salads often do not have raw vegetables or fruit as their main ingredient but they use (minced) meat, seafood, or noodles instead. Similar to salads in the West, these dishes have in common that they (often) use a souring agent (in Thailand usually lime juice) and feature the addition of fresh herbs and other greens in their preparation. Thai salads are not served as entrées but normally eaten as one of the main dishes in a Thai buffet-style meal, together with rice (depending on the region this can be glutinous rice or non-glutinous rice) or the Thai rice noodle called Khanom Chin. Specialised khao tom kui (plain rice congee) restaurants also serve a wide variety of Thai salads of the yam type as side dishes. Many Thai salads, for instance the famous Som Tam, are also eaten as a meal or snack on their own.
Varieties of Thai Salads
Yam literally means “mix” but in Thai cuisine it normally refers to a type of salad-like dishes in the culinary repertoire of Thailand. In Thai cuisine one can eat a variation of yam style salad every day. Yam can be made with a wide variety of ingredients as its main ingredient and nearly any type of protein, vegetable, fruit, herb, spice, and noodle, or combinations thereof, is possible. The main ingredient can be raw, pickled, fermented, sun-dried, smoked, steamed, parboiled, boiled, grilled, baked, stir-fried or deep-fried, or combinations thereof.
Besides the main ingredient, the basic recipe of a yam will nearly always contain sliced fresh shallots or onions, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and fresh or dried chillies.
When herbs are used, it is usually Chinese celery, sometimes in combination with other fresh herbs such as spearmint, coriander leaves, spring onions and culantro. Very often, sliced tomatoes are also added in, or finely slices fresh spices such as lemongrass, ginger, galangal, or khamin khao (lit. “white turmeric”).
Examples of yam style salads are yam nuea yang with sliced grilled beef, yam khai dao with fried egg, yam tale with mixed seafood, yam mu yo with a pork sausage resembling liverwurst, or yam wunsen with glass noodles.
Some yam salads can use only herbs, spices and nuts as their main ingredient, such as yam takhrai met mamuang himaphan with sliced lemongrass and cashew nuts, or with stir-fried vegetables, such as water mimosa in yam phak krachet. Depending on the salad, anything from crispy fried onions, crunchy nuts or seeds, to toasted coconut flakes can also be added to the mix to enhance the flavours, colours and textures.
Also, in many yam salads where the main ingredient is not meat, cooked minced pork can be added for extra savouriness, as often happens in yam wunsen (glass noodle salad). After one look at the menu of a khao tom kui (plain rice congee) restaurant, it is clear that nearly any ingredient that one can imagine can be used to make a yam style salad. To name a few: yam khai khem (salted duck eggs), yam kung chiang (dry Chinese sweet pork sausage), yam mu krop (Chinese crispy pork), and yam phak kat dong (Chinese pickled cabbage). These yam that are eaten with plain rice congee tend to remain more simple in their preparation, containing only the basic “dressing” of lime juice, raw onion or shallot, chillies, sugar and fish sauce in addition to the main ingredient, with only some celery added where needed
A few types of yam need special mention as they differ somewhat from the basic recipe as mentioned above:
- Yam naem khao thot (also known as naem khluk) is a salad made from crushed, deep-fried ball shaped croquettes made from sticky rice and curry paste as the main ingredient, tossed together with shredded fermented pork sausage, and mixed with peanuts, crushed dried chillies, lime juice, sliced shallots and fresh herbs, and served with a selection of fresh greens and additional herbs on the side.
- Yam thawai is an elaborate salad made with chicken and a wide selection of vegetables, such as banana flowers, eggplant, string beans, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, blanched shortly in coconut milk, and then served together with a creamy curry-like dressing.
- Yam pladuk fu or pladuk fu yam mamuang is deep-fried flaked catfish meat served with a dressing made with thinly sliced unripe mango, shallots, chillies, lime juice, sugar and fish sauce.
- Yam kung ten or just kung ten is a salad made with very small translucent freshwater shrimp. The novelty of this dish is that a spicy lime dressing is first placed at the bottom of a bowl, which is then filled to the brim with the live shrimp and closed off with a lid. When the lid is opened by an unsuspecting dinner guest, some of the small wriggling shrimp jump out of the bowl. Kung ten literally means “dancing shrimp”. Shaking the bowl mixes the live shrimp with the sour dressing which kills them.
- Northern Thai yam do not follow the usual Thai yam dressing in that they tend not to be sour at all. Many are soup-like in appearance and resemble cold vegetable, meat or fish stews. They are made similarly to a salad, by combining the separate (cold) ingredients in to one dish together with fresh herbs. Very often a sauce made from boiled fermented fish is used as a flavouring.
- Yam Som-O – A yam made with pomelo, can utilise a different dressing altogether than a standard yam. As the pomelo, being a citrus fruit, is already naturally tart, the dressing can be sweet and/or creamy. It is therefore that recipes often make use of palm sugar,tamarind and coconut milk to complement the taste of the pomelo.
- Yam salat is commonly used to denote Western salads in Thai, usually to refer to salads that use mayonnaise in the dressing.
The most famous, and for many also the original, tam (lit. “pounded”) style salad is Som Tam, made from unripe papaya. The basic dressing for a som tam-style salad contains garlic, palm sugar, lime juice,bird’s-eye chillies,dried shrimp and fish sauce. This dressing is slightly pounded and mixed together inside an earthenware mortar using a wooden pestle. With certain kinds of tam, some or all of the additional ingredients will also be pounded slightly if this helps to release the flavours. Though with dishes such as tam phonla mai (fruit) or tam mu yo (a sausage similar to liverwurst), the main ingredients are simply mixed in with the dressing. Many types of tam salads will also contain (sliced) tomatoes.
Northern Thai tam are quiet different altogether. Most of these dishes do not use any lime or tamarind juice, nor any vinegar in their dressing, thereby lacking the sour element seen in many salads. Tam makhuea for instance, is made from mashed grilled eggplant, grilled shallots and garlic, roasted chillies, fish and shrimp paste and served with mint and boiled egg. It is somewhat similar to other eggplant salads from around the world such as Baba Ghanoush. Further removed from what would still be viewed as a salad in the West, is the northern Thai tam khanun, made with mashed boiled whole baby jackfruit, dried chillies, minced pork stir-fried with a chilli paste, cherry tomatoes, fresh kaffir lime leaves, and coriander leaves. Another traditional salad from northern Thailand is tam khai mot daeng, made with the eggs of the red ant. Phak phai (Vietnamese mint) is one of the more unusual herbs used in this salad. A tam style salad from northern Thailand that is also famous in the rest of Thailand, is tam som-o (pomelo salad), in which the slightly pounded flesh of a pomelo is mixed with garlic, sliced lemongrass, and a thick pungent black paste (nam pu) made from boiling down the juices and meat of rice-paddy crabs.
Lap or larb is one of the internationally most well-known salads from Thailand. The spicy, sweet and very tart style of lap from Laos and northeastern Thailand is made with a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, ground dried chillies, sugar and, very importantly, khao khua, ground dry roasted glutinous rice which gives this salad its specific nutty flavour. Coriander leaves and chopped spring onions finish off the dish. Lap is most commonly made with minced pork or minced chicken, but in Thailand, lap pla, with fish, is also popular. Nam tok is a derivative of lap where the meat is sliced and not minced.
Northern Thai lap is a very different type of dish. As with the northern Thai tam, no souring agent is used in these dishes. Especially the versions using stir-fried minced meat (lap khua) more resemble a “normal” meat dish than a salad; but, as with salads, different ingredients, including fresh herbs and spices, are freshly mixed together to form the dish. Other versions of this northern Thai speciality use raw meat or fish.
Phla style salads can be made with a variety of proteins. Popularly used are pork (phla mu), prawns (phla kung) or beef (phla nuea). The basic dressing is very much the same as a yam but with a difference. In addition to the fish sauce, lime juice, chillies, and shallots or onions, a phla style salad will also always contain large amounts of thinly sliced lemongrass and mint. Additional fresh herbs, such as coriander leaves or culantro, can also be added to the mix. Some versions are made with grilled pork or beef, other versions will also have nam phrik phao, a sweet roasted chilli paste, mixed in with the dressing. This last version is popular with squid (phla pla muek) and with prawns.
Other Thai salads
The following dishes can also be regarded as salads:
- Kha nom chin sao nam is a kind of noodle salad using fresh Thai rice noodles called khanom chin, mixed in with thick coconut milk, chopped pineapple, garlic, bird’s-eye chillies, ginger “au julienne”, lime juice, fish sauce, and pounded dried shrimp.
- Mu kham wan or mu manao is a salad-like dish of sliced grilled pork over which a spicy and very sweet dressing made with lime juice, garlic, bird’s-eye chillies, sugar and fish sauce is poured. This dressing is basically a generic Thai nam chim (lit. “dipping sauce”). It is often served sprinkled with mint leaves and served together with thinly sliced raw Chinese broccoli which are made extra crispy by serving the sliced vegetable on a bed of ice.
- Sa are salad-like dishes from northern Thailand which use a similar chilli and spice paste as the northern Thai lap, but with sliced raw shallots and garlic added in to the dish. Two of the numerous variations are sa phli, which is made with uncooked sliced banana flowers, and sa chin, with sliced raw buffalo meat.
- Achat is the Thai version of the Malay and Indonesian pickle called acar. Where the original acar can be made with a whole range of vegetables, the Thai versions are limited to cucumber. Achat is often served in a small dish as a dipping sauce for sate, thot man pla (spicy Thai fish cakes), and popia thot (deep-fried spring rolls). Taengkwa priao wan is a similar salad-like cucumber pickle.
- Sup no mai (lit. “bamboo shoot soup”) is a salad made by first boiling bamboo shoots, ya nang leaf juice and other ingredients together, after which the resulting “soup” is mixed with fresh herbs, sliced onions and dried chillies.
- Khao yam phak tai (lit. “southern Thai mixed rice”) is one of the staples of southern Thailand. It comes in many versions but the basic recipe for the most widespread variation involves mixing cold cooked rice with pieces or slices of unripe mango or pomelo, dried shrimp, budusauce, bean sprouts, toasted coconut flakes, sliced lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Sometimes lime juice is added for additional tartness.
- Miang khamare small “salad” parcels made with the fresh peppery leaf of the cha plu wrapped around a filling of toasted coconut, chopped lime, bird’s-eye chillies, shallots and ginger, which has been topped with a sweet and savoury sauce made from palm sugar and fish sauce. Variations include additional ingredients for the filling such as dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, fried fish or meat, sliced lemongrass, and alternative ingredients for the sauce such as tamarind, shrimp paste and galangal. These bite sized parcels are often eaten as a snack or appetiser.
Although not really a salad as it doesn’t involve mixing ingredients in to a specific dish, the Thai tradition of serving a selection of fresh and boiled greens (often vegetables but also raw tree leaves, steamed mushrooms, or cooked pumpkin) together with a saucer or bowl of nam phrik (Thai chilli paste), fits one of the usual characteristics of a salad, being cold vegetables with a “sauce” as an accompaniment to a meal.