“I’d say the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done is probably bungee jumping in Thailand” – Simon Cowell
I bought an orchid at Bangkok airport once. And then got on the plane and proceeded to spend the next eleven hours in a panic that I was going to be arrested at Heathrow for bringing prohibited plant contraband into the country. I am pretty sure I didn’t sleep a wink on that flight. Probably couldn’t even concentrate on the Matthew McConaughey ‘comedy’ I was trying to watch (he’s come a long way since Failure to Launch hasn’t he?). They’d be waiting for me. Just after the baggage reclaim. Mabe with those machine guns they have at airports. I would be looking at really long stretch. I was travelling from outside the EU and everything. 10 years? I’d obviously slept through the lecture on plant import offences at law school. Or maybe there wasn’t one. Terrible oversight either way. Would there be a bin before passport control? Could I just stuff it in an overhead locker and leave it there? It definitely won’t fit in the tiny aeroplane toilet bin. No, I’d just have to go into the red channel with my purple plant product and pray for leniency.
Guess what? I didn’t go to prison in the end. So that’s a relief. Turns out those orchids they sell at airports are cut ones. With those little capsule things over each stem end. And Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise (as they were then) are pretty cool about those. So I walked free. And then left the bloody thing on the Heathrow Express.
That is the sum total of my experience of Thailand. I have never set foot outside Bangkok airport, despite having been through it on numerous occasions. I’ve no idea why. I’ve heard it’s a wonderful country. It was just one of those places that kept falling down the list, as we just assumed we’d go one day and then never did. I am hoping to go soon. Soon as in like when our (two year old) son is at university. I will be sure to update the blog then though and tell you whether this salad is even vaguely authentic but until then we’ll just have to call it ‘Thai-style’, as I don’t have the first clue whether it is or not.
A Thai (style) salad is, however, a brilliant addition to any healthy eating repertoire. Once you have nailed the salty, sweet, spicy, sour dressing and adjusted it to how you like it, you can throw it over any combination of salad, vegetables, herbs and protein and it will taste delicious. And you won’t feel like you are eating a salad for dinner. We eat a lot more South East Asian food in general these days as the heat from the chilli and the complex aromatic flavours make even lighter dishes feel really satisfying. On days we eat meat we’ve also found that salads like these allow us to stretch one smaller piece of meat between two – we use one sirloin steak between us when making this with beef, where we would have had one each if having steak and chips.
It would be remiss of me not to point out that sugar is a critical ingredient in a Thai dressing. There isn’t really any escaping that. The sweet/salty/sour thing is what makes it work. Palm sugar, either in a block or as a paste (which is not the same thing as coconut palm/nectar sugar that is currently very popular with ‘health people’) is the most authentic, but caster or soft brown works equally well. We are talking 3 teaspoons in a dressing for 2 people, not all of which will get eaten in my experience (unless you lick your plate) as it makes quite a lot. Well within the recommended 10 teaspoons a day (and even the more conservative 5). So, if you’ve not been eating cake all day, you can allow yourself to go sugar-crazy with a SALAD. (I read somewhere that the Japanese – who use sugar extensively in savoury cooking – believe that a little sugar balances a meal in a way that means you aren’t desperate for something sweet afterwards. Interesting theory, non?)
- The basic formula for the dressing is fish sauce, chilli, sugar and lime juice. The most common variations beyond that include adding garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and/or ginger.
- Fish sauce smells (and tastes) absolutely vile on its own. Vile. But do not be deterred. Once blended with the other ingredients it creates a deep salty note that you can’t quite get just with salt. I can’t use the word umami without wanting to punch myself in the face but if it were a word I used I’d probably use it here. Vietnamese fish sauce is supposed to be the best, if you can find it (try Sous Chef if you do fancy trying it), but I think the Thai Squid brand is perfectly acceptable. Go for smaller bottles though as while it theoretically keeps for ages, it does get increasingly pungent as time goes by and can make dressings and sauces a bit sharp and muddy tasting if too old.
- In terms of the salad itself, shallots* are a pretty standard addition, along with a decent amount of aromatic soft herbs (always mint and usually also Thai (or regular sweet) basil and/or coriander). I know coriander is something of a Marmite herb but this does work just as well with mint and Thai basil, if you are a coriander-hating
- Beyond that, it is really up to you what you make the salad up with. There are versions that are simply meat/fish with shallot and masses of herbs through to those involving cherry tomatoes, garlic chives, cucumbers, radishes, shredded Chinese (napa) cabbage, carrots and salad leaves. (Nigella does an Asian style lamb salad in Nigella Express that basically throws lamb and spicy asian style dressing over a bag of supermarket mixed salad leaves). Blanched green beans are a particularly good addition.
- Roasted (skinned) peanuts and crispy fried shallots are commonly added for some crunch, but I think the latter certainly is quite optional. The peanuts are particularly good and aren’t difficult to find. You can buy tubs of ready-made crispy shallots in Asian supermarkets but I find them to be universally disgusting so it’s worth making your own (easy to do in a little oil in a wok) if you want to include them.
*Some recipes add diced shallot to the dressing but I tend to put the shallots – finely sliced – directly into the salad itself partly for texture but mainly because I keep the leftover dressing in the fridge to throw over other things, and find it keeps better without as the oniony flavour begins to overpower it after a day or two.
I had always traditionally made this with beef (yum neua I believe it is called in a country I have never visited). But I was recently alerted to a version with squid from the Hairy Bikers by some hot Swedish bird I met on the internet. Or that at least is what I would call her if I were Danny Dyer. But I am not and so she is also called Emelie Frid and you may already know her from her guest blogging over at Recipe Rifle but, if you don’t, you should follow her here or here on the social media of your choice if you want to see how somebody can do daily battle with two small children, follow the entire plot of Game of Thrones, Hannibal and True Detective, cook the best-looking food on Instagram and still find time to get dressed and apply lipstick every day. I’ve even stolen one of her pictures below as her salad looked prettier than mine.
Em uses this as dinner on 5:2 diet fast days so I am going to go right ahead and verify that this has about 8 calories per serving. Or something like that. My version below is a Glee-style “mash up” (did you cringe when you read that? I did writing it) of the Hairy Bikers one and my go-to beef salad from Leiths How to Cook with a few changes I made for a laugh. A variation with beef is also below, if you are in need of a ‘healthier’ red meat fix.
- 200g squid (with tentacles if you like), body pieces sliced into pieces around 6cm wide
- 1cm piece of ginger, peeled (the back of a teaspoon works brilliantly) and thinly sliced
- 2 spring onions, trimmed, sliced into ½cm pieces
- 2 tbsp grapeseed or other neutral cooking oil
- 1 garlic clove
- 1-2 thai red birds eye chillis (de-seeded or not, depending on your heat tolerance)
- 1-2 limes, juiced
- 1-2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp palm or caster sugar
- ½ lemongrass stalk (optional)
- salt (if crushing the chilli etc in a pestle and mortar)
- small handful of garlic chives (or regular chives), cut into 2.5cm lengths
- 2-3 small Thai shallots or ½ a banana shallot), finely sliced
- 10 plum cherry tomatoes, halved
- half a cucumber, cut in half, seeds removed, thickly sliced
- small handful mint leaves
- small Thai basil leaves (or normal basil)
- small handful coriander leaves (optional)
- If using lemongrass, cut off the bottom and then remove the tough 2 or 3 outer layers until you get to the softer pink/yellow section. Slice this finely. Crush the garlic, lemongrass and the chilli together in the pestle and mortar with a pinch of salt until it forms a rough paste. Add the other dressing ingredients, stir to combine and adjust to taste. It should be sweet, sour, salty and spicy all at the same time.
- Combine the salad ingredients in a bowl, and dress with about half of the dressing.
- Score the squid pieces lightly on one side with a sharp knife in a criss cross pattern, taking care not to cut all the way through.
- In a wok (or failing that a frying pan), heat 2 tablespoons of oil over a high heat and when it is very hot (and only when) add the spring onion and ginger. Cook for 30 seconds just until you can begin to smell the ginger and throw in the squid pieces (and tentacles, if using). Stir fry over a high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until the squid just starts to curl up.
- Take the squid off the heat and throw in two tablespoons of the reserved dressing and toss together. Scatter the squid, ginger and spring onions over the salad and serve the rest of the sauce in a bowl to add if required.
If squid isn't your thing this recipe works equally well with beef (see below), chicken, prawns or marinated tofu.
If you have the barbecue out cooking your chosen protein on it can only make it even better.
If you want to make it more substantial throw in some cooked rice-noodles.
The amounts given for the dressing are guidelines only. I can’t stress enough that you need to adjust, adjust, adjust until you get the balance you want. Chillis vary a lot but so too do fish sauces and the amount of juice you get from a lime so start with the quantities below and tweak until you are happy with it.
- Take one sirloin (or rump) steak of approximately 250g (for 2 people), make sure it is at room temperature, season it aggressively and then cook it over a medium/high heat for 1-2 minutes each side and then let it rest for 4-5 minutes. That will give you medium/rare meat, so adjust to your liking.
- Once rested, slice it the steak into thin slices across the grain to get the most tender result and add to the salad. Two or three tablespoons of roasted unsalted peanuts are particularly good with the beef version and for some reason I think it does need the crunch.
- I would also lose the tomatoes (don’t ask me why, I just don’t really like them with the beef version) and throw in something like briefly cooked green beans instead. Add 1/2cm piece of the ginger directly to the dressing – the recipe above cooks the squid with the ginger but that doesn’t really work here as you aren’t wok cooking the beef.
Kitchen Song of the Day: Ingrid Michelson – You and I (Be OK)