Yum is the Thai word for ‘salad’, and literally means ‘to toss’ or ‘to mix together’, or ‘to mix together using the hands’; a description for the method of their construction. The typical Western salad of cold greens tossed with vegetables (and occasionally a protein) and then topped with a mild salad dressing is usually eaten as the precursor to the entrée, or as a meal substitute for the light diner. A salad in Thailand could not be any more different in terms of taste, texture, temperature, aroma, content, or presentation, or its role within the framework of the meal. The Thai salad is versatile: it can be eaten any time of the day or night, as a bracing spicy street vendor snack, an appetizer, or as a course served with the meal. It can be the vibrant counterpoint to a bland dish, an exclamation point in a complex menu, used to provide contrast and balance, or it can be eaten as a stand-alone dish. Thai salads are a complex component of the meal, meant to refresh the palate and energize the dining experience. They can vary from a simple, almost primitive dish such as laab or num tok, to an intricate assemblage like miang kam.
Thai salads are typically multilayered and assertive in flavor profile, relying on the robust but well-balanced dressing to compliment what are sometimes diverse components, while coalescing the ingredients into a unified whole. Generally the dressing (naam salaat or ‘salad water’) will have a delicate interplay of the four essential flavors: sweet (from palm, coconut, or cane sugar), sour (from fruits or vinegar), hot (from chiles), and salty (from fish sauce). Occasionally coconut milk, coconut cream, or even curry sauce components will be added to the mix. Smoky elements in a salad can be added by fire-roasting some of the ingredients, such as garlic, shallot, chiles, galangal, ginger, or lemongrass.
Dressings are best made with a mortar (khrok), made eitherof clay(khrok din), of stone (khrok hin),orof wood(khrok mai) and a pestle (saak) of wood (saak mai), which retains some texture to the mixture, allowing it to adhere better to the components. A mortar and pestle will also extract all of the flavorful oils and aromatics from ingredients by crushing and grinding; action that is not provided by a food processor. The amount of dressing used is more than that typical of a Western salad; it should liberally dress every component of the salad, but not drown it.
The aim of the dressing is to provide a taste contrast to the main ingredient while balancing the mixture. The sweet component in a dressing adds body and depth; best used as a background flavor. The salty component highlights the other flavors, and accents the sweet aspects. Sour flavors clarify and sharpen the salad, while spiciness from the chiles adds piquancy and clarity, and accent texture. Generally sweet ingredients are added to the dressing before the sour ingredients are added, with the salty element being added last. If you make the dressing in advance, always taste the dressing before adding it to the salad as the sour elements can fade over time, upsetting the balance of the flavor. If a dressing is made with coconut cream or with tamarind, those ingredients should always be added at the last minute.
A yum can be made from any type of meat, poultry, or seafood, alone, or in combination, and it can be raw, “cooked” with acid, poached, fried, or grilled. Any vegetable or fruit can be utilized in the Thai yum palette, especially the broad range of sour and sweet-sour fruits. It can be made with any of the types of noodles (rice, egg, wheat, or mung bean-based) or even made with rice or ground roasted rice. The herbs used in each salad tend to reflect the regional origin of the dish (or the regional origin of the chef).
The main ingredient around which the salad is built is generally cooked before preparation, so it tends to be slightly warm or at room temperature. The dressing serves to cool the main ingredient to a point that prevents it from wilting any other ingredient, while releasing the fragrance of mint, shallots, and other aromatic ingredients. The vegetables and herbs are always impeccably fresh and the combined salad tends to be served slightly beyond room temperature. The purpose is to cook and dress the protein and then combine the salad ingredients just before service.
There are countless variations of Thai salads; it is an area where a cook’s creativity is encouraged. Seasonable availability is emphasized, and ingredients are utilized the most when they are at the peak of their formal harvest season. Below are listed a few of the truly classic salads of Thai cuisine.
Perhaps the most popular salad in Thailand is som tam, a regional culinary transplant imported from Isaan to the Central region, brought in with the flood of workers from the poorer Northeastern quadrant of the country who migrated to the cities in search of jobs. The Thai name literally translates as “spicy pounded”. It is a simple but delicious dish that is quickly prepared to-order, requires few ingredients, and a minimum monetary investment for a street vendor to produce. The dish has taken Thailand by storm over the last 45 years or so, and regional styles have developed as the dish spread. Bangkok, as the gastronomic focus point of the country, tends to adopt all styles with time, but the Central version generally uses small dried shrimp (koong haeng) as the protein.
Isaan and Northern versions tend to use instead the small, dark, pickled land crabs (shell and all) called buu (poo) kern, and instead of using fish sauce (naam plaa), they prefer the much more assertive naam plaa raa (paa daek in Lao or Isaan), a thicker, chunkier sauce made from salted and dried freshwater fish that is fermented with rice and aged for 9 months or more. Also used in the north and northeast to replace fish sauce is naam puu (buu), small, dark terrestrial field crabs pounded into a paste, mixed with water, and cooked into a thick, black, sticky liquid.
Coastal regions tend to use very fresh raw crab meat, with or without the shell; having to pick bits of shell out of your mouth is very common. The crab is ‘raw’, but actually undergoes a small degree of chemical “cooking” from the acid of the lime juice, similar to a ceviche. Along the coastal regions it is also common to see seafood (talay) som tam salads, made from a mixture of several types of seafood, or from a single species, such as shrimp, squid, oysters, fish, etc.
The base vegetable for a som tam is usually shredded green or unripe papaya, which grows wild throughout the country. They way a som tam maker shreds the papaya is a work of art: holding the fruit vertically in the left hand with a towel, she will make a very rapid series of shallow cuts into the fruit using a knife that resembles a small, razor-sharp machete (daap) held in the right hand. She then holds the fruit over her large wooden mortar and ‘shaves’ thin strips of perfectly uniform julienned green papaya into the work bowl of the mortar. It happens in the blink of the eye, and looks amazingly dangerous. The green papaya can be substituted with pomelo, green mango or ‘sour’ (sweet-tart) mango, green cabbage, tart apples from China, deep-fried edible leaves or flowers, or any number of different vegetables or semi-tart fruits. Most street vendor versions stick with the green papaya.
Other than the salty-fish component, additional ingredients are fairly consistent. Shallot is always used as an aromatic. Lime juice or tamarind liquid is used for the sour element of the dressing; sometimes used in combination together, or used in combination with other citrus, such as tangerine juice. Sour is balanced with cane, palm, or coconut sugar, again, sometimes in combination for balance or color. Cherry tomatoes, peanuts, and pieces of long bean are fairly consistently added. The heat comes from hot chiles, usually phrik kee nuu, the tiny nuclear-hot green chiles favored by Thais.
A som tam vendor might ask you in sign language how many chiles you prefer when they are making the salad by saying ‘phrik’ (chile) in an inquisitive tone and holding up fingers (2 to 4 phrik kee nuu might be acceptable, while macho chile freaks can use as many as 10 per som tam serving). Be warned, som tam salads can be some of the hottest dishes you will eat in Thailand. I ate a particularly spicy version with raw crab and 9 chiles at a beachside restaurant in Bang Saen that instantly caused my brow to sweat, my nose to start running, my taste buds ignited, and I began to hiccup (and I love very spicy food). It was so good, however, that a second plate was almost immediately ordered. To almost instantly relieve an overdose of chile burn, we recommend a tall glass of Thai ice tea: the dairy fat from the condensed milk on the top coats and removes the oils of the chile.
Regardless of the regional variation, som tam are almost universally served with a small ball of sticky rice to absorb the dressing and help tame the heat, and som tam salads are always made using a large wooden mortar and pestle. To find a som tam vendor, look for the tell-tale wooden mortar and pestle, or listen for the distinctive “bok bok” sound of the pestle hitting the mortar. The purpose of the mortar and pestle is to pulverize and blend the dressing ingredients, and to bruise the vegetable and fruit components to make them limp and easy to eat, while thoroughly mixing the salad together.
Mam’s version of som tam uses dried shrimp, as done in the Central region. The dressing is extremely well-balanced, and the heat moderate.
Also known as laap, larp, or larb, this salad is a meat salad that some feel is related to what might have been the original steak tartare: minced meat combined with onions. Culinary historians think that a variation of the dish was created in China (Marco Polo reported having eaten similar preparations during his Chinese explorations), and then carried into Laos, Burma, and Northern Thailand and Isaan by the ancient Yunanese Haw and Burmese Shan traders who regularly trekked between the regions. There are countless variations, using beef, water buffalo, chicken, duck, pork, etc, both raw and cooked. Blood (lueuat), used as a flavoring and thickener in the dressing, is still found in Northern and Isaan indigenous variations of the dish. Some versions from the Northwest show more Burmese and Shan influence, using a dressing that is thicker and more curry-like, containing ingredients such as Sichuan peppercorns, long pepper, cumin, lemongrass, and the like. Flaa (a word in Northern or Lao dialect) is a salad made of raw meat; it is also the name of the verb for slicing the raw meat for the salad.
Regardless of the styles, the laab that most are familiar with is meat which is minced or chopped, and then cooked in a spicy dressing containing considerable amounts of dried red chiles; there are versions, especially in the North and in Isaan, where the meat is served raw. The dressing usually contains lime juice, a bit of sugar, fish sauce, and powdered chile. Sliced red shallots, garlic, mint, cilantro, and sawtooth herb (if available) are consistently used as aromatics in the salad mix. The salad is bound together with a sprinkling of finely ground roasted rice powder, which also adds subtle flavor and texture. It is eaten with a side dish of fresh raw vegetables, such as cabbage or lettuce leaves, long beans, cucumber slices, etc. Sup is an Isaan-style salad made with bamboo shoots in the manner of a laab.
Thought to be an offshoot of the ancient laab, Num tok (nahm dtok) literally means ‘water fall’ a reference to the beads of internal moisture that form on the edges of the single piece of meat as it cooks over a live fire, which serve as the visual clue for the cook to turn the piece of meat. It originated in Isaan, was adopted with relish in the North, and has now spread throughout Thailand. The dressing is pungently spicy, sour, and salty, with just a pinch of sugar to soften the bite. It is generally cooked with beef, although pork, venison, or chicken can be substituted. The meat is cooked to medium rare, and sliced thinly against the grain. Once sliced, the meat is tossed with sliced shallot, cilantro, mint, sawtooth herb (if available), dressing, and roasted and finely-ground roasted rice (khao nao). Normally a wedge of green cabbage is served alongside as an edible scoop. Num tok is popular as a dish eaten with drinks, as a salad, or as a side dish.
Mam’s version is tart, spicy, minty, and especially refreshing; light yet filling in the summertime. It is served with leaf lettuce and a side order of rice.
Yum nuea simply means ‘beef salad’. This salad is an American variation of a laab type of preparation, which pairs cooked beef in a garlicky robust, balanced, and spicy dressing with several types of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and red shallot or red onion, garnished with cilantro. Mam’s version of this dressing is garlicky, tart, well-balanced, and robust, and we wish that she would bottle it. We always get a side order of rice, so that every drop of the dressing can be relished.
This is a salad found near the coasts in which fresh shrimp have had their shells split down the middle and are very briefly blanched; then they are dressed with lime juice and aromatics. The salad is what the Thais call ‘cured’, meaning that the shrimp is partially ‘cooked’ by the acid in the lime juice, much like a Latino ceviche.
Below are partial lists of common Thai salad ingredients which are combined to make an endless variety of salads:
krachai (wild ginger)
eggplant (generally the round, or ‘apple’ type)
white, ‘silver’, or ‘cloud’ fungus
long beans & green beans
mung bean sprouts
woon sen (silver thread)
green mango (sweet-tart mango)…usually used with fish or seafood
tart apple and Asian pear (imported by barge down the Mekong from China)
salak/salat (snakeskin fruit)
Dried shrimp, and other dried seafood
Shellfish: oysters, mussels, cockles, clams, scallops, razor clams, abalone, limpet, etc.
Crustaceans: shrimp, mantis shrimp, spiny lobster, slipper lobster, freshwater prawns, crabs, sea cicada, etc.
Cephalopods: squid, cuttlefish, octopus, nautilus, etc.
Misc: fish, jellyfish, eel, sea cucumber, etc.
Meats: beef, pork, water buffalo, venison, wild boar, etc.
Poultry: chicken, duck, goose, quail, guinea hen, eggs, etc.
This is an appetizer or salad snack based on an ancient dish from the Northern Thai-Shan Burmese border area where wild tea (Camelia sinensis) leaves are fermented and chewed with salt to produce a bitter snack with a mild buzz. In Burma today one of the best known and most popular salads is Lephet thote, made from fermented tea leaves, a salad-mild stimulant used much like Westerners use a cup of coffee. Miang in Thai means ‘wild fermented tea leaves’, but more commonly refers to a leaf that is eaten as a wrapper. Kam in Thai refers to ‘a mouthful’ or ‘bite’. Another possible origin of the dish is the widespread antiquated practice of chewing on betel nuts to produce a mild stimulating buzz. The nut of the areca palm is wrapped in a betel leaf (Piper betle) with some mineral slaked lime and chewed, producing reddish spittle. The betel leaf (plue in Thai) is first cousin to the pepper leaf (chaplu in Thai), which is the leaf used for miang kam in Thailand: chaplu, Piper sarmentosum.
Miang kam is a common street food or snack, which can be sold as either pre-wrapped leaf packets, or more often as a platter with a dressing and fresh chaplu leaves in the center, surrounded by small mounds of several different ingredients: fried dried shrimp, fresh ginger slices, roasted shredded coconut meat, small sections of peeled lime, sliced shallot, fresh Thai chiles, and whole roasted peanuts. The sweet and salty dressing or sauce is made from dried shrimp, shredded coconut, peanuts, palm sugar, fish sauce, and a little water. Diners include whichever of the ingredients they prefer inside the leaf with a bit of the dressing, roll it up, and pop it into the mouth. The vibrant flavors explode in the mouth all-at-once: rich, tangy, sour, piquant, and pungent. It is a salad made to order, consumed in a single bite.
Yum Tua Kieow: Green Bean Salad:
This salad served at Madam Mam’s is a variation of a famous Thai salad which uses a vegetable called winged beans (tua puu, or Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), a tropical green bean pod with four winged edges that tastes like a sweet, chewy green bean. Since winged beans are difficult to locate on a consistent basis, green beans or long beans are often substituted here in the States. Wing beans are sliced very thinly, while green beans or long beans are lightly blanched and cut into bite-sized pieces. The plate always has thin slices of hard-boiled egg arranged to one side, and is usually made with shrimp or shredded chicken meat tossed with the beans. The shrimp or chicken is lightly simmered with lemongrass, lime, and honey, while the wonderfully balanced dressing is made from tamarind, palm sugar, roasted shredded coconut meat, fish sauce, peanuts, and a bit of roasted chile paste. The dish is garnished with coconut cream, fried shallot, and whole fried red chiles. If you have never had this dish, it should definitely be on your short list of Thai salads to eat. It has rapidly become a favorite of serious Mamophiles.
Yum Ahp-pel Kiew: Green Apple Salad:
Although apples, green apples, and Asian pears are found in Thailand and are very popular, they are often shipped down the Mekong from Southern China, or brought in by air or boat from points north. Low-chill apples are being experimented with as a possible crop in the northern mountainous areas of Thailand, but generally apples are an imported fruit. The sweet tart flavor of green apples is somewhat similar to the taste of Thailand’s fantastic green mangoes; both have crisp, juicy flesh with a balance of sweetness and tartness, but the green mango benefits from having a definite mango taste component. Typical Thai green mangoes (ma-muang is mango) that are commonly eaten in salad-like preparations are:
keow savoey: oblong dark green fruit with white flesh, the ripe fruit and flesh are pale white, with a sweet and juicy taste
rat, rad, rhino, (“rhinoceros”): slightly more sour, with a tantalizing hint of sweetness
falan (“thunder”):not as sweet, commonly eaten with nam pla wan: a savory chile dip prepared by blending roasted chiles, palm sugar, and fish sauce heated to a caramel-like consistency
lin ngo hou (“Cobra Tongue”) a sharper, almost bitter taste balanced with sweetness
Any of these fruits are also commonly eaten out-of-hand as a snack with prik kab kleua, a dry sea salt and palm sugar dip seasoned with crushed fire-roasted chile.
Since green mangoes are largely unavailable in the produce markets of the Continental United States, green apples make the ideal substitute. The version served at Madam Mam’s is complex in flavor, yet deceptively simple. A julienne of fresh green apple is tossed with large dices of ripe tomato, chopped roasted peanut, and a few fried dried shrimp. The dressing is superb: hints of fish sauce, subtle overtones of palm sugar and the balance of lime, the kiss of smoky chile, all creating an exciting and cool taste which matches perfectly with the more complex flavors of the typical Thai meal.
Seua Rong Hai: Tiger Cry
Tiger Cry is a dish of sliced, marinated grilled meat accompanied by a spicy nam phrik dipping sauce. It can be eaten as a salad or as an entrée, and is very popular as a snack eaten to accompany drinks. When you see this dish offered by Thai restaurants in the States cooked as a stir-fry, you can be assured that it is not an authentic preparation. In less chile-tolerant America, this old traditional dish has taken on a new meaning as being a “dish so hot that it makes even a tiger cry,” but that is far from the original translation of the dish in Thailand, where seua means “tiger”androng hai means “crying”.
Originally, the dish was made using only meat from water buffalo that had gotten too old to continue working the fields. A water buffalo is too valuable as a farm work animal, especially in the rice paddies, to be raised for food; they are only eaten after having lost their ability to contribute. In Thailand it is known as "Tiger Cry" because the meat of the older water buffalo was so tough and hard to chew that it made even a tiger cry. Although water buffalo meat is still eaten in Thailand, especially in poorer outlying districts, the growth of the Thai beef cattle industry, and the import of beef from Australia, the U.S., and South America has made high quality affordable beef available nationwide. Thankfully the tiger cry cooked at Madam Mam’s is a misnomer; it is remarkably tender, and spicy, but not intolerably so.
Mam uses high quality sirloin steak, marinated simply in garlic, soy,, and fish sauce. The beef is grilled to medium rare, briefly rested, and sliced thinly against the grain, yielding delicious and smoky fork-tender steak strips. These slices are wrapped in romaine lettuce leaves and red onion, and dipped into a thin nam phrik sauce of lime, fish sauce, chile, scallion, and cilantro, thickened slightly with nutty ground roasted rice. The flavor is extraordinary and one of the best meat dishes on the menu.
Moo Ping: Grilled Pork
Moo ping is a dish of marinated pork skewers that are quickly grilled and served with a ball of sticky rice and a dark thick spicy tamarind chile sauce. The pork is cut into thicker slices than you might find with a satay, and is marinated in coconut milk, fish sauce, garlic, cilantro root, salt, and sugar. This dish is quickly grilled and sold as a snack by street vendors, popular for an afternoon break snack, as a snack for workers on the way home, or late at night, as a snack for folks cruising the streets or bars. There are vendors serving this dish all over the country, but in Bangkok there are two very famous vendors selling it: one is behind the Thai Telephone Authority, the other near the corner of Silom and Convent.
The marinade causes the pork to form a thin caramelized crust on the outside as it grills over the fire, sealing in the juices of the pork, while it tenderizes the meat. Madam Mam’s presents the dish as tender, thick, and smoky pork (or chicken) slices that literally melt in your mouth. The sauce is amazing: sweet and tart from tamarind, with a deceptive chile heat that creeps up and builds on the backside of the taste. The combination of flavors is superb and addictive. Mam’s serves the pork slices with a round of hot sticky rice, as well as lettuce, tomato, red onion, and cucumber. We recommend that you make impromptu “sandwiches” of pork, sauce, rice, and vegetables wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
Madam Mam’s Salad:
If there were a single dish on the Madam Mam’s menu that might seem non-traditional or modernized, it would have to be the simple side salad. The dressing could be considered “fusion” since it contains Balsamic vinegar, but when combined with soy it actually brings it much closer to the Thai flavor profile. Although raisins might seem like a strange ingredient for a salad from Thailand, there are thriving raisin-producing vineyards located just southwest of Bangkok. There are also burgeoning grape-growing wine production centers in Khao Yai, Hua Hin, and Loei provinces, where the altitude and climactic conditions are perfect for growing varietal grapes. Madam Mam’s Salad, of crisp romaine and iceberg lettuces, tomato, cucumber, red onion, raisins, and soy-balsamic dressing, is ideal and refreshing combined with the delicious offerings on the menu.