Archive | June 2013

Smokey Mountain Thai

Thai Flavors

After my cooking lesson with Penn and her friends (see previous post), I was hooked on Thai cooking. I wanted to chop and pound and sizzle my taste buds. I turned to a book about the art, history, and technique of Thai home cooking by Su-Mei Yu. Chef, teacher, and writer, Su-mei lives in the United States but has made many journeys back to Thailand to research the history and evolution of traditional recipes, as well as the people and customs that shaped them. She writes, “To me, teaching someone how to cook Thai food is like teaching someone to dance.” Her book is called “Cracking the Coconut, Classic Thai Home Cooking.”

Yumm is the word for Thai salads. Su-Mei explains that yumm describes the process of using your hands to mix various ingredients–vegetables, fruits, blossoms, and roots–together with a dressing. The ingredients are the best and brightest of fresh, seasonal produce, and the salads are full of contrasting flavors and textures. Each salad has a star ingredient and a cast of supporting characters to surprise and delight. These salads are the perfect place to practice the Thai sense of sanuk, or fun, and one of the easiest ways to experiment with Thai cooking.

Ingredients for Thai Salad


Layers of flavor create the intriguing nature of Thai cooking. Thai salads are often named for their main ingredients, so Su-Mei includes recipes like Yumm-Grilled Chile, Yumm-Pomegranate, Yumm-Wild Rose (adapted from the Persians), and even Yumm-Baloney (adapted from American soldiers!). The main ingredients for the salad should include soft, chewy, and crisp textures for contrast. Fresh herbs and fruit add bursts of flavor, while garnishes add color, aroma, and more texture. A Thai salad dressing combines sweet, salty, sour, and hot flavors to bind it all together.

Thai salads are versatile and invite creativity. You can make one with just one vegetable or many. You can include cooked or smoked meat, fish, chicken, or tofu. You can serve the salad with rice or noodles on the side, or toss it all together. Su-Mei recommends arranging the salad ingredients on a large platter for a beautiful presentation, pouring on the dressing and tossing gently just before serving. Garnishes are added as a finishing touch.

To create my first Thai salad of spring, I went to the garden to look for the most enticing vegetables to make a juicy, crisp, herby combination that would sparkle with flavor and color. Su-Mei says to include crispy, soft or slippery, and chewy textures, so I harvested asparagus, young carrots and turnip for crisp crunch, a golden beet for its brilliant color, and snap peas. Then I gathered arugula, mint, cilantro, celery leaves, garlic chives, and all the flower petals I could find.

Spring Vegetable Salad

Thai Salads


Thai salads are intensely flavorful, so they are meant to be eaten with rice. Short grain brown or white rice (sushi rice), jasmine rice, Bhutanese red rice, or Chinese black rice are all good choices. The rice can be served in small bowls or combined with the other ingredients before serving.

Ingredients: 10 or 12 medium size asparagus stalks (grilled* and chopped in bite-size pieces), 2 or 3 young carrots (1 cup diced or cut in matchsticks), 2 small turnips (1 cup diced or cut in matchsticks), 1 beet (steamed or boiled, peeled and diced), 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced snap peas, 1/2 cup slivered sweet onion, 1/2 cup finely sliced garlic chives or scallions, 1/4 cup each chopped mint, cilantro, and celery, 1 or 2 finely chopped fresh chiles, 1/2 cup halved green grapes

Additions: 2 or 3 cups cooked rice, 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced grilled chicken or crisp-seared tofu, whole lettuce leaves

Garnish: 1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts or pumpkin seeds, handful nasturtium, borage, mustard, and/or calendula flowers, 2 tsp lime or orange zest

Dressing: 1/2 tsp sea salt, 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 1/2 Tbs minced cilantro stems and root, 2 to 4 tsp minced fresh hot chiles, 1/4 cup fish sauce, 2 Tbs palm or Mexican cane sugar, 2 Tbs granulated white sugar, 2 Tbs rice or cider vinegar, 6 Tbs fresh lime juice, 2 Tbs tomatillo salsa, 1 Tbs tamarind juice (substitute pomegranate juice or cherry juice). The last two ingredients are optional, but I like adding the fruity element.

Pound the garlic and salt to make a paste. Add the chiles and pound to incorporate. Add the cilantro stems and root and pound lightly. Whisk in the remaining ingredients until the sugar is dissolved. Adjust the flavors to balance hot, sour, sweet, and sour to your taste.

Make the salad: Prepare all the ingredients and arrange them on a large platter in separate piles. Mound the rice in small piles on the same platter, or serve it in small bowls. After everyone has admired the salad, pour on the dressing and toss all the ingredients gently together. Scatter the garnishes over the top. Serve with large whole lettuce leaves for scooping up the salad.

*Note: My favorite way to cook asparagus is stovetop grilling. Heat a large iron griddle over medium-high heat. Roll the asparagus spears in olive oil to coat lightly. Sprinkle them with kosher or sea salt. Place the asparagus in a single layer on the griddle and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until the spears are tender inside and browned all over. Delicious.

Bowl of Rice


Som Tumm (Pounded Spicy Salad)

Not sure

“You have to taste…” Penn

My friend Penn is from Thailand and ran a Thai restaurant in Asheville for several years. I jumped at the chance when she graciously offered to introduce me to Thai cooking at her home. When I arrived, several of her friends (also accomplished Thai cooks) were already assembling ingredients around a large island counter in the kitchen. They paused amidst their piles of chiles, garlic, and cilantro and eyed me. “Is she eating with us?” they asked. Penn nodded, yes. Immediately, half the chiles were swept aside and they went back to chopping.

I learned a lot from Penn and her friends about the collaborative nature of cooking and the mutability of measurement. Not only did they reduce the number of chiles, but after they finished chopping and pounding, they all tasted the mixture to assess the balance of flavors. One cook thought it should be sweeter, another more salty, and a third squeezed in more lime juice. Finally, they were all satisfied, and Penn turned to me and said, “You have to taste.”

Penn also taught me about improvisation and substitution when it came to ingredients. We were making Som Tumm–a spicy green papaya salad often served in Thai restaurants–but Penn explained that she couldn’t get the green papaya in winter, so she was using carrots. In fact, many vegetables and fruits can be used to make this salad.

The salad is traditionally served with Jasmine sticky rice, but at the table personal preference ruled. Some diners scooped up the salad with bok choi leaves, some ate it with balls of sticky rice, some swirled it with noodles, and others mixed everything together. You can’t go wrong.

Tumm is a Thai cooking technique meaning grinding, pounding, or pureeing. I met my first Thai mortar and pestle at Penn’s house and immediately went to our local Asian food store to buy one. Then I bought a second, larger one. They are big and heavy, made of stone. The size is important because all the ingredients for Thai spice pastes, dressings, and Namm Prikk (“chile water,” or sauce) are pounded together in the mortar. Ingredients are prepped beforehand–garlic chopped, spices toasted and ground, herbs minced, chiles soaked and chopped.–and added to the mortar in a precise order. Each new ingredient is added only after the previous ingredient is pounded and blended into the paste. Pounding is an up and down motion, with frequent rotating of the mortar to ensure even blending.

Mortar and Pestle


I love using my mortar and pestles. I like the aromas released by pounding and the way the flavor evolves as each new ingredient is blended in. Tumm can be accomplished in a blender or food processor more quickly and easily; maybe it even tastes just as good. But when I pound the chiles and garlic together by hand, I think of Penn and her group of laughing friends and their generosity.

Som Tumm Green Papaya Salad



I call this Green Papaya Salad even though I most often make it with green mango, carrot, or sweet potato. Thai chef Su-Mei Yu writes that the original northeastern Thai name, tumm som, translates as “pounded spicy” –a dish of seasonal vegetables pounded with seasonings. What you are looking for is a slightly sweet flavor and crunchy texture. Allow one to one and one-half cups coarsely grated or finely diced vegetable or fruit per serving.

Ingredients (choose from the following): green Mexican papaya, half-ripe mango, raw sweet potato, jicama, carrot, cabbage, or lightly steamed green beans; 6 cherry tomatoes (Penn prefers cherry tomatoes for their slightly sour taste), 1 tart green plum or nectarine or 2 tomatillos, small bunch arugula

Peel, seed, and coarsely grate the fruit or vegetables to make 5 to 6 cups (if using apple, put the grated or finely diced fruit into a solution of fresh lemon or lime juice and water to prevent discoloration). Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Cut the plum into thin slivers. Chop the arugula leaves. Toss these ingredients together in a large bowl.

Dressing: 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1/4 tsp coarse salt, 2 to 4 minced serrano or bird chiles (seeded), 1 diced shallot, 2 chopped cherry tomatoes, 2 Tbs dry-roast peanuts, 1 to 2 Tbs Thai fish sauce, 4 Tbs fresh lime juice, pinch sugar (or more to taste)

Pounding method: Put the garlic and salt in a large mortar and pound to make a smooth paste. Add the chiles and pound lightly to crush. Add the shallot and pound again lightly. Add the tomatoes and slightly crush. Add the peanuts and pound again lightly, Stir in the fish sauce (add it little by little, to taste), and lime juice. Stir in sugar and taste for balance. It should taste spicy, sour, salty, and sweet…in that order.

Pour the dressing over the salad and mix well. Garnish with a handful chopped mint and cilantro leaves and more chopped peanuts. Serve with lettuce, bok choi, or cabbage leaves for scooping.

Notes: There are many versions of this salad. Some are made by pounding all of the ingredients together in the mortar before adding the fish sauce and lime juice. Others are made by simply whisking the dressing together and pouring it over the shredded vegetables. Increasing the number of chiles turns sum tomm into more of a salsa or chutney.

Cherry tomatoes and tomatillos may be popped whole into freezer bags and stored frozen to use in salads like this.