A Thai meal is incomplete without salads. Salads were a staple of Thai cuisine growing up. We don’t want to eat our vegetables, but it is because we love salads! Most of our salads contain a lot of protein and very few vegetables. Salads are often served because they are the “fresh” part of a balanced Thai meal. If you wish to enjoy a Thai meal as a Thai, you must learn about Thai salads. Although there are many Thai salads to choose from, you can generally group them into four categories: Yam (tam), laab (PLA), and pla. Although these salads have many similarities, each has unique characteristics, particularly in terms of cooking technique. You’ll be able to easily make any of the four types of salads once you know the basics.
Since I have been teaching Thai cuisine for more than 12 years, my philosophy is to look beyond the recipes to see the larger picture and understand the overarching themes. That’s how you truly “get” a dish.
The Four Key Ingredients in Thai Salad Dressings
Let’s start with the dressing before we get into the main four styles of Thai salads. It’s an ingredient that is shared between the different categories. Thai salad dressings often use the same main ingredients. This is not a complete list. These are not the main ingredients in most dressings.
Fish sauce It’s hard to imagine a Thai dish without fish sauce. It is the main seasoning ingredient that adds saltiness to the dish. It is important to use high-quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat, Squid or Three Crabs.
Lime juice Unlike Western vinaigrettes or dressings that use all sorts of vinegar and acid to give acidity, Thai salads only use fresh lime juice as their main source of sourness. Some salads may add tamarind paste to the lime juice for extra pucker. But that’s it.
Sugar: With a few exceptions to the rule, most Thai salads have some sugar added to balance the acidity and salinity of the dressing. Palm and granulated sugar are common, but nam park pao is a sweetened Thai chile jam that adds extra depth and sweetness to the salad.
Chilis: Thai Salads can be mildly spicy or very hot. However, all Thai salads contain at least some heat from chile. You can use fresh or dried chiles, which deliver a strong capsaicin bite, or a slower-building background heat, depending on what type of salad you choose.
Four Categories of Thai Salads
Although no words translate Thai as “salad”, we have several words that describe dishes made by mixing ingredients with a dressing (like lettuce). These are the main types of Thai salads. They cover most Thai salads, whether they’re in Thailand or elsewhere. Anything not listed here is a lesser-known dish or regionally unique one.
Yam almost any ingredient can be mixed with this dressing. Traditional yams have protein as their main ingredient. They are often paired with crunchy vegetables such as onions or Chinese celery to balance them. To give a yam a bright, shiny finish, fresh herbs such as cilantro or scallions can be added.
How to make Yam
- Prepare the dressing. Using a mortar and pestle, pound fresh chiles into a paste. Add the palm sugar to the mortar and pound it until it is dissolved. Mix the remaining liquid ingredients, such as fish sauce and lime juice, until the palm sugar has dissolved completely.
- Prepare any ingredients that need to be cooked. Once you have made the dressing, you can start cooking.
- Mix, garnish, and serve. If the salad lacks crunch, you can add roasted peanuts and cashews.
- Tam-style salads can be found in Thai and Lao cuisines. Som Tam, which combines the words for sour (som) with the term for pounding a mortar in a mortar (“tam”), has come to be synonymous with green papaya, the most popular tam-style salad. There are many variations of this theme, including cucumber and corn.
- Tam salads are made by crushing ingredients in a mortar with a pestle, much like a curry paste (prik gang). But unlike a curry paste, you don’t need to pound the ingredients to make a paste. Instead, crush the ingredients lightly and mash them until they give off their aromas. Then, all the ingredients are mixed in the mortar. A large clay mortar or wooden mortar with a wooden pestle and a wooden hammer is required for this gentle pounding. This is not the granite mortar used to make curry pastes. This larger mortar allows you to pound the mixture with a lighter touch. It also serves as a mixing bowl that allows you to combine the ingredients with a large spoon. There are many sizes available for this type of mortar. However, even if you don’t choose an extra-large one, the mortar can be used to make the salad until it is full. Then transfer the ingredients to a bowl to mix the final mixture.