FIVE THAI TASTES BUILD FLAVOR FAST
American salads can be awfully bland. Key ingredients (iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes) add bulk but not much flavor. That’s the role of the dressing, which often seems designed to make all that roughage more palatable.
In Thailand, food is rarely bland and that certainly applies to the country’s most famous salad made with grilled beef. Served warm or at room temperature, this preparation features slices of deeply charred steak tossed with thinly sliced shallots and handfuls of mint and cilantro leaves in a bright, bracing dressing. Every ingredient in this dish is bold—even brash—yet they work together. In the best versions, the cuisine’s five signature flavor elements—hot, sour, salty, sweet, and bitter—come into balance, making for a light but satisfying dish.
So how do you build flavors in this Thai classic? A fresh Thai chile creates bright, fruity heat in the dressing, while a generous 3 tablespoons of fresh lime juice adds sharp acidity. Pungent fish sauce amps up the salty, umami notes. A half-teaspoon of sugar tames the salty-sour flavors without becoming cloying, or noticeable. And thoroughly charred steak supplies both a pleasing textural contrasts and a subtle bitter edge.
At the table, the dish is sprinkled with two condiments. Toasted rice powder adds sweet notes and mild crunch. Toasted chile powder provides earthy flavors but not much heat. Rather than toasting a single dried chile for this dish, we found that a mix of cayenne and sweet paprika (to tame the heat) did the job. Toasting the jarred spices in a dry pan for just 1 minute unlocks their flavor and makes an unusually flavorful table condiment for an unusually flavorful salad.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
You don’t need to break the bank with this salad—flank steak boasts good beefy flavor and decent tenderness at a moderate price. Its uniform shape also makes it easier to grill evenly and slice neatly.
Old Grill, New Tricks
Start the meat over high heat to sear the crust. When beads of moisture appear on the surface of the meat, it’s ready to flip to finish cooking. This Thai technique of gauging cook progress relates to the name of the dish, nam tak, which translates to “water falling.” It sounds romantic, but there’s actually a scientific explanation. As the steak’s interior gets hotter, its tightly packed fibers contract and release moisture, which the fire’s heat pushes to the meat’s surface. When flipped at this point and cooked for an equal amount of time on the second side, the steak emerges deeply charred on the outside and medium-rare within.
The dressing should have a good balance between hot, sour, salty, and sweet to provide a counterpoint to the subtle bitter char of the meat. Fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar will provide three of these elements. For the hot element, a fresh Thai chile fits the bill, but traditional recipes also use a powder made from dried Thai chile pods to give the heat a deep, earthy flavor. You can skip this latter step and add a little toasted cayenne and sweet paprika, which impart similar character.
Don’t Skip the Toasted Rice
You might think a tablespoon of rice powder wouldn’t make much difference in this salad and be tempted to omit it—don’t. It adds extra body to the dressing and offers a pleasant toasty crunch when passed at the table. If you can’t find a commercially made version, you can easily make your own. No excuses. Simply toast white rice in a dry skillet and grind to a fine meal in a spice grinder.
Toasted rice powder adds body and crunch to this salad that features perfectly grilled steak.
Grilled Thai Beef Salad
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 12 minutes to toast spices and make toasted rice powder (light grill while waiting for rice to cool)
- 15 minutes to make dressing and prepare other ingredients
- 10 minutes to grill steak
- 10 minutes to rest steak
- 5 minutes to slice and dress steak and assemble salad
- 8-inch skillet for toasting spices and rice
- Spice grinder for grinding toasted rice (A mini food processor or mortar and pestle can be used instead.)
- Slicing knife for carving grilled steak (A chef’s knife will also work but a slicing knife will make it easier to get thin slices.)
Substitutions & Variations
- If a fresh Thai chile is unavailable, substitute ½ serrano chile.
- We like the cool crispness of the sliced cucumbers along with the beef salad but shredded cabbage, watercress, and salad greens are also traditional.
Don’t skip the toasted rice; it’s integral to the texture and flavor of the dish. Any variety of white rice can be used. Toasted rice powder (kao kua) can also be found in many Asian markets; substitute 1 tablespoon rice powder for the white rice. Serve with rice, if desired.
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon white rice
- 3 tablespoons lime juice (2 limes)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons water
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 (1½-pound) flank steak, trimmed
- Salt and coarsely ground white pepper
- 1 seedless English cucumber, sliced ¼ inch thick on bias
- 4 shallots, sliced thin
- 1½ cups fresh mint leaves, torn
- 1½ cups fresh cilantro leaves
- 1 Thai chile, stemmed, seeded, and sliced thin into rounds
- Heat paprika and cayenne in 8-inch skillet over medium heat; cook, shaking pan, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to small bowl. Return skillet to medium-high heat, add rice and toast, stirring constantly, until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and let cool for 5 minutes. Grind rice with spice grinder, mini food processor, or mortar and pestle until it resembles fine meal, 10 to 30 seconds (you should have about 1 tablespoon rice powder).
- Whisk lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar, and ¼ teaspoon toasted paprika mixture in large bowl and set aside.
- For a Charcoal Grill : Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour in even layer over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
- For a Gas Grill : Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s).
- Clean and oil cooking grate. Season steak with salt and pepper. Place steak on hotter side of grill and cook until beginning to char and beads of moisture appear on outer edges of meat, 5 to 6 minutes. Flip steak and continue to cook on second side until meat registers 125 degrees, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to carving board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes (or let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour).
- Line large platter with cucumber slices. Slice steak ¼ inch thick against grain on bias. Transfer sliced steak to bowl with fish sauce mixture; add shallots, mint, cilantro, Thai chile, and half of rice powder; and toss to combine. Arrange steak over cucumber-lined platter. Serve, passing remaining rice powder and toasted paprika mixture separately.
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