Salad is a very important part of the Thai meal, oftentimes in Thailand if you are eating a meal there will be some sort of Thai salad component, not just because it’s healthy but it’s a way to balance out a meal and provide the fresh component of the feast. So if you want to eat your Thai meals like a true Thai, learning about these Thai salads will be absolutely necessary.
There are so many Thai salads, but they can be grouped into four distinct categories: yam, tam, laab, and pla. While these different styles of salads share many ingredients, they each have defining characteristics, especially in terms of culinary technique.
Four Ingredients in Thai Salad Dressing
Thai salads have a unique flavor profile, combining all the flavors you love from Thai cooking and putting it into a refreshing salad. Below are the four staple ingredients when making any Thai salad.
Fish sauce: This is the main seasoning element that lends saltiness and umami to the dish. Because fish sauce plays such a prominent role in Thai salads, it’s important to use a high quality product. If you are vegetarian though most restaurants can substitute this out for salt!
Lime juice: Thai salads all feature fresh lime juice as the main source of sourness. Similar to how western salads use citrus and vinegar flavors. Some salads may supplement lime juice with tamarind paste for extra pucker.
Sugar: With a few exceptions, most Thai salads are sweetened with sugar to help balance the salinity and acidity of the dressing. Palm sugar is the ingredient of choice when it comes to Thai salads, but regular white sugar may be used as well, sometimes nam prik pao, a sweet and savory Thai chile jam, is used to give a salad sweetness with extra depth of flavor. At our restaurant Thai Ginger we make our nam prik pao from scratch!
Chiles: Unlike most western salads, Thais prefer their salads spicy hot! Thai salads can range from mildly spicy to burning hot. Both fresh and dried chiles may be used.
Now the Four Types of Salad
The word Yam means to mix, so this salad can basically be a mixture of whatever you want! Typically Yam is made with protein being the main ingredient then paired with crunchy vegetables. Vegetables included are sometimes celery, tomatoes, scallion, onion, cilantro etc.
Some examples of this salad which you can find on our menu would be,
Yam (or Yum!) Woon Sen Talay – This is a seafood salad with bean thread noodles mixed with the vegetables mentioned above and with the iconic tangy salad flavor.
Beef Salad or Yam Nua – This is charbroiled beef with cucumber, red onion, tomato, cilantro in a spicy lime sauce. All the ingredients are hand tossed and mixed with our salad dressing.
This type of salad is usually pounded in a mortar and pestle. Som tam, which combines the word for sour (som) and the term for pounding in a mortar (tam), has become synonymous with green papaya salad, which is easily the most well-known tam-style salad. But there are countless variations on the theme that use ingredients beyond green papaya, such as cucumber or corn. The goal however isn’t to pound it into a paste but to instead lightly bruise the ingredients to release the juices and aromatic flavors that give it its delicious taste.
This is a type of salad found in northeastern Thailand or Laos, this is also a very famous style of salad you may have seen often in restaurants. typically made with finely chopped or ground meats that are cooked and then tossed with a simple dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and coarsely ground dried chiles, along with fresh herbs, particularly mint, and, most important of all, khao khua, or toasted-rice powder. Here at Thai Ginger in the Seattle area we create our own khao khua (toasted rice powder) for our laab dishes.
Found on our menu is Larb Gai – The traditional Thai salad with finely chopped chicken breast cooked in lime dressing, red onion, green onion, cilantro and mint. Served with fresh cabbage wedges as edible spoons.
Traditionally Pla is a type of salad made from raw thin slices of beef or seafood cooked with the acid of lime juice, much like ceviche. Over time this has become not as common and this salad is modernized and made with fully cooked meat due to health concerns, but if you can find restaurants that know how to prepare it safely the traditional way you are in for a treat!
We have the dish Pla Lard Prik – Whole boneless trout deep-fried to a golden brown. Topped with our spicy tamarind sauce, mushroom, bell peppers and sweet basil. It uses the salad techniques of Pla and is a very refreshing meal.
Eat Some Salad!
Now that you know all the different styles of Thai salads you can confidently order for your table the best salad dishes. Remember that Thai salads are not meant to be served on their own, so for the full experience, make a meal out of it with rice and maybe a curry. Try our Thai salads in your next meal at Thai Ginger!