Thai cuisine offers a rich array of tastes - vegetables and tropical fruit, coconut milk, curry pastes, diverse sauces and exotic spices. Thai salads are called yam, a catchall name for a variety of dishes balancing the four basic tastes: sour - generally achieved by seasoning with lime juice, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves; spicy - from fresh chili peppers, garlic and ginger; salty - achieved by seasoning with fish sauce or shrimp paste; and sweet - made that way by using palm sugar.
Herbs are essential: fresh cilantro, mint, lemongrass and Asian basil. Yam salads contain a main ingredient that absorbs the flavors of the sauce and changes from one salad to another, giving each a unique quality. This ingredient may be ground beef or chicken, noodles, seafood or fish. For the Thais, the spicier the salad, the tastier and healthier it is. Hot pepper helps, they believe, to cool down the body on hot days, cleanses the digestive system and clears a stuffed-up nose.
The most popular yam of all, among Westerners as well, is the green papaya Som Tam, an ingenious dish sold at street stalls in major cities. On the islands and beaches women carry the ingredients for the salad on their backs and prepare it on the spot using a mortar and pestle. The Thai nickname for this salad is Pok Pok after the thudding sound the pestle makes against the mortar.
Green papaya is merely an unripe papaya. It is available at produce and health food stores and those specializing in Asian products, though sometimes requiring advance order. You can substitute a combination of green apple with kohlrabi strips, cabbage or thin slivers of green mango for the papaya.
Another especially popular yam features bean starch noodles, also known as glass or cellophane noodles, as they become transparent after softening. This salad is rich in fresh vegetables such as white cabbage, mushrooms, green beans, peppers and sprouts. In certain areas of Thailand it comes with blanched calamari or shrimp.
Because of their lightness and assorted tastes, Thai salads are very suitable for the Israeli summer. The ingredients can be found at almost any health food store. They are easy and simple to make. Even if you alter the components slightly or season to taste, the yam will remain fresh and appealing to both eye and palate.
Green papaya salad (Som Tam)
Som Tam is considered the national salad in Thailand though it is originally from Laos. To make it you will need a green papaya − with a green peel and yellowish-green flesh. It is preferable to use a mortar and pestle, but a food processor will also get the job done.
This salad is served with an oil-free sauce, so it fits well into a weight-watching menu.
Ingredients (4-6 servings):
1 green papaya (may be exchanged for a
combination of white cabbage, kohlrabi, and green apple)
150 grams green beans, washed and trimmed
2 tablespoons scallion rings
4 garlic cloves
Hot red pepper, sliced into rings
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/2 cup cilantro or nana mint leaves
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
5 tablespoons lime juice or lemon juice
1.5 tablespoons brown sugar
Handful of roasted unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
Peel the papaya with a vegetable peeler. Slice into thin slices (preferably on a kitchen grater or with a peeler). Pile the slices on a cutting board and slice into slivers. Blanch the green beans in boiling water for 4 minutes. Drain and cool in a bowl of cold water. With a mortar and pestle or a food processor, crush scallion, garlic, and hot red pepper, until you get a coarse consistency. Add the tomatoes and a 1/4 cup of cilantro, and continue crushing for a few seconds. Add fish paste, lime juice, and sugar. Mix and set aside. Combine the papaya and green beans with the sauce, sprinkle on the rest of the cilantro leaves and the chopped peanuts. People who like their food spicy will be glad of extra hot red pepper on top of the peanuts. Serve immediately.
Bean thread noodle salad (Yam Won Sen):
Ingredients (8-10 servings):
Half a package of bean thread noodles
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 peeled carrots
1/4 of a Chinese cabbage or ordinary white cabbage
1 sweet red pepper
1 basket Champignon or Shimeji mushrooms
1/2 hot red pepper
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 cup nana mint leaves
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
For the sauce:
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
2 garlic cloves,
minced 4 tablespoons soy sauce
5 tablespoons lime juice or lemon juice
8 teaspoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons sweet Asian chili sauce
Roasted peanuts or cashews, unsalted, coarsely chopped
Soak the noodles in boiling water for a few minutes. Drain. Add a teaspoon of sesame oil and mix. Slice carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, and sweet red pepper into thin strips. Leave the herb leaves whole, without chopping. Add these to the noodles and mix. Combine the ingredients for the sauce, mix well, and pour over the salad. Adjust the seasoning and serve with a generous helping of chopped peanuts and cashews on top.