This is one of those iron fist, velvet glove kind of dishes. I can still remember my first SE Asian salad. Innocently taking my first crunchy bite, wondering where the lettuce was and thinking that the ground nuts were a great touch.
Then…POW! All thoughts were knocked clean out of my head by the intense sledgehammer chilli heat. Followed up with a mass of citrusy, pungent, salty and sweet flavours clamouring for attention.
There was no slow-building spiciness either. The heat was searingly immediate, made me break out in a sweat and was the start of an addiction. This was, appropriately enough, from a street stall in Bangkok. The next time I got a salad there I watched in fascination as each dish was pounded together in a great wooden pestle.
Grinding the peanuts
It was like seeing Macbeth’s witches at work. Eye of newt may not have featured, but I definitely saw some dried shrimp, soft shell crab and a devilish amount of birds eye chillies being thrown in. Add that to the eye-watering fish sauce, lime leaves, green mango and other vegetables, and you have one of the most flavourful and impactful dishes around. One that’s almost impossible to find unwatered down in the UK. And they all it a salad. Ha!
This is my own version, served with seared beef, loads of fresh herbs, and only a single birds eye chilli between two. All of which makes it more Vietnamese than Thai. But it’s still pretty punchy.
Don’t be afraid of the amount of sugar, lemon juice or fish sauce going in, it all balances out. And it’s that balance, of fresh and spicy, pungent and citrus, sweet and salt that is key to making a great SE Asian salad. You should be left slightly gasping, with a tingling tongue and the start of a sweat breaking out. Its all part of the fun. Remember, this is not even remotely related to the gentle Euro equivalent. It’s probably healthier though.
Slicing the cabbage
Vietnamese seared beef and herb salad
Serves two, but scales well
This may seem like a bit of a faff to put together, but it’s really worth it. Sure you could not roast the peanuts, or bother with the shallots. But the end result wouldn’t be quite so balanced. Still tasty though.
If you can, do try and get hold of the SE Asian versions of the herbs. Both Thai basil and Vietnamese mint are slightly less astringent and coarse than their Western cousins. And you could very easily replace the coriander with perilla leaves for a totally authentic feel. These it if, like me, you couldn’t find them, then use what’s available, and chop/tear it up slightly.
If you were feeling brave you could probably add another half a birds eye chilli to affairs. That really would stoke up the heat.
A single portion of rump steak, about 200g ish
A third of a white cabbage – sliced into fine strips
2 carrots – sliced into fine batons
Third of a cucumber – seeded and sliced into fine batons
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons white wine or rice vinegar
A small handful of raw peanuts
1 shallot – sliced into very fine half rounds
Handful of mint leaves
Handful of basil leaves
Handful of coriander leaves
Juice of one and a half lemons
2 tblsp caster sugar
1 tblsp fish sauce – try to use a good one like 3 Crabs, it’s much better than the ubiquitous Squid
1 birds eye chilli – finely sliced, seeds and all
2 cloves garlic – crushed
Combine the dressing ingredients in a jar and shake well to combine.Mix the carrots, cabbage and cucumber with the caster sugar and vinegar and leave for up to an hour.
Dry fry the peanuts in a small pan until they turn brown, then crush them. I used a pestle and mortar.
Fry the shallot in some oil until it. If brown and crispy. Then drain on some kitchen towel.
Sear the steak in a very hot pan for about 90 seconds a side, then rest for ten minutes. Slice into thin slices. Wash the herbs.
Now assemble you salads on the plate by piling up a little vegetables, herbs and beef then sprinkling with some shallot, peanuts and dressing. Repeat until you have little mounds of salad.