This is what you are more than likely to see on the menu in your local Thai restaurant anywhere, with familiar variations containing green mango, papaya, glass noodles, or even grilled meat. But there is so much more to this “salad” category when it comes to Thai food.
Larb, Yum, Phla, Koi – these are all what Thai cuisine is proud to represent as dishes that carry so much vibrancy, freshness, and tang. Differentiated by the herbs and seasonings used as well as the regions they come from, these beautiful dishes share one common ground; they complete a Thai feast on any dinner table!
A good Thai “salad” has flavorful components that include fresh lime juice, fish sauce, Thai chilies, palm sugar, and an abundance of fresh herbs.
Papaya salad that is a staple in the north eastern region of Thailand as well as Laos, is made by pounding ingredients like garlic, bird’s eye chili, yard long beans, shredded green papaya, and tomatoes in a clay mortar and pestle. The basic seasonings include fish sauce, fresh lime juice, and palm sugar. But there are so many variations to this dish, that the flavor profile could be so different from one another. A more tourist-friendly version is called Tum Thai, which is heavier on the sweetness from palm sugar, has delectable pieces of dry shrimp, and roasted peanuts. Then you have what the locals of Isaan adore, which is Tum Poo Plaraa, that uses fermented fish sauce and pickled crabs, giving the dish a much deeper umami.
You’ll hardly see a local eating Thai salads on its own, as it’s meant to be part of a bigger meal. Papaya salad or Som Tum is usually enjoyed with steamed glutinous rice, with fresh vegetables and grilled meats on the side.
Another type of salad from the same region that has quickly become an international favorite is Larb. Larb is heavier on the protein element, using minced meat of your choice or tofu and mushrooms for a more vegan-friendly option. The meat is cooked together with herbs like galangal and kefir lime leaves in a small amount of water to add aroma to the dish, and used once it has cooled down.
Larb is seasoned using the usual suspects of fish sauce and fresh lime juice, but here chili flakes is used in place of fresh chilies, and the magical ingredient of toasted rice powder is also added. The rice powder is made by dry-roasting glutinous rice grains until it turns a golden color, and pounded into a fine powder. This adds both aroma and a welcomed crunch to Larb that sets it apart from all other types of salads.
Other than the seasonings, Larb gets its flavor from the abundance of fresh herbs used. Mint leaves, culantro (not to be confused with cilantro), spring onion, and shallots are roughly chopped and sliced, and mixed in with the rest of the ingredients. You will also often see fried dried bird’s eye chili being used as garnish. Larb too is very much enjoyed with steamed glutinous rice and fresh vegetables on the side, and is another dish that every Isaan meal must have.
But what if you wanted just a salad on its own without going for a full feast?
Then Yum is where it’s at! This is a lighter type of salad, that is very much customizable to suit your taste preference whether you’re concerned about the spice level or what ingredients you’d like to omit.
The two types of salads that we’ve already talked about are seasoned as they’re made, and there aren’t too many changes you can make without pulling the dishes apart completely; that’s definitely not the case with Yum. Dressings for Yum can be made separately, using fish sauce (or soy sauce), lime juice, palm sugar, and crushed fresh chilies. Once you have this base and the flavor profile that you like, you now have a dressing that is so versatile and can be used in so many different ways.
Some familiar ones that you would see in Thai restaurants is Yum Woon Sen, or glass noodles salad, and Yum Nuea or beef salad.
Different kitchens will have slightly different variations, but essentially Yum is a wholesome dish containing cooked protein and fresh vegetables elements, with a dressing that is light and bright enough for you to enjoy even as a meal on its own.
The next time you’re at your favorite local Thai place and have ordered your usual curries and stir-fries, why not try picking one of these salads from the menu and see how it really adds to the whole meal!