It’s not that these salads are meant to be eaten in summer, it’s just that they are best and easiest in the summer in New York – and of course are appropriate for the temperature.
Apricots are in season here right now, and I happened to have some, so I threw together the salad above tonight. Deep-fry the dried-shrimp till crispy (about 15 seconds), then drain and dry on paper towels. It’s essential to have good dried shrimp. These ones come from the Phillipines.
Toss the apricot slices with some salt and let sit for 5 minutes. Sprinkle on the dried shrimp and some chopped fresh mint leaves. The dressing should be composed of 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 cup fish sauce, 2 tbs palm sugar and 1/4 cup granulated sugar, heated gently until the dry ingredients are dissolved, then the mixture cooled, and finally mixed with 1/2 cup fresh lime juice (just before serving). Obviously cut down the amounts for the size of the salad – I made one-fourth the amount of the dressing recipe for the salad shown above. That said, “Thai salads are not so much dressed as anointed liberally” – David Thompson.
For variations on this theme, braise a bunch of cartilaginous pork and then sliver and scatter over the salad. Substitute fresh shrimp for dried – boil it briefly. Or get large shrimp and butterfly and grill them.
The best known Thai salad is som tumm, or green papaya salad. It comes from Isan in the northeast of Thailand (New Yorkers should check out the excellent new Isan restaurant Zabb Elee in the East Village) and shares similarities with the cuisine of nearby Laos. The above shot of the ingredients is misleading in some respects. The apple eggplant was destined for a curry, not the salad. And you really should use snake beans (also known as yard beans) for the salad, not regular Western green beans, though the latter will do in a pinch.
You prepare som tumm in a Lao mortar and pestle, which unlike the solid granite Thai version (used for pounding curry pastes) is made of clay and wood. The salad ingredients are gently mashed together, starting with garlic and Thai chiles and then moving on to snake beans, dried shrimp, palm sugar, lime juice, cherry tomatoes, fish sauce and the green (unripe) papaya. You can julienne the latter with a mandoline or benriner, or do it the old-fashioned way, holding the papaya in your left hand and rapidly hitting the peeled surface with your knife until the surface is scored with parallel cuts, then shave the pieces off, the repeat.
This som tumm recipe mainly comes from Kasma Loha-unchit’s invaluable thaifoodandtravel site, with some substitutions based on David Thompson. But the accompaniment is pure Thompson – sweet crispy pork. This is a two-day preparation and involves pork neck with palm sugar, Indonesian sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), oyster sauce, salt and star anise. The pork is marinated in the syrup and then dried overnight, and finally, deep-fried:
The combination of the chewy, sticky pork with the crisp textures and tangy flavors of the som tumm is intoxicating.