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A Spicy Thai Salad that Deserves Your Time & Attention

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Today: A rainbow-colored salad with raw, steamed, and tempura-fried vegetables—plus jam (trust us here).

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Somewhere along the way, salad became the part of the meal that wasn’t given as much thought as, say, the main course—or even dessert. Put some lettuce in a bowl, put whatever seems salady on top, throw on some acid and oil and salt and pepper: Salad! 

Maybe the base of the salad didn’t have greens but rather grains or egg, and maybe our dressings got a little more experimental. We thanked it for being the savior of our sad lunches and neglected vegetables—but what if we really committed to the salad: What if we spent as much time constructing a salad as we do a soup or lasagna? If we bought ingredients specifically to make a certain salad? What if a salad, all on its own, hit all the notes of a well-composed meal, or upstaged whatever was supposed to be taking the spotlight on the dinner table?

That's what happened when I first had the Yum Yai salad at Kin Khao in San Francisco. I hoarded the deep bowl, unearthing layer under layer of what felt like gifts from the chef. The showy, red-bowed stuff is on top: tempura-fried greens. It might be shiso leaf, pea shoots, arugula, or baby kale, depending on what's available. But then circles of pink—radishes—and tangles of orange (carrot) and light green (cucumber) ribbons distract. Plus lettuces, plus blanched green beans. When you make this at home, grab all your utensils and go mining for gems, because they just keep on coming. 

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But don't think this salad rests on the fact that the vegetables are delicious-from-the-farmers-market. The real kicker to this salad is in the dark dollops of chile dressing about the sprightly vegetables. The base for this brooding dressing is restaurant owner Pim Techamuanvivit’s grandmother’s recipe for Thai Chile Jam (Nam Prik Pao), rich with fried chiles, garlic, and shallots that have been simmered with fish sauce, shrimp paste, and tamarind. Yes, you can buy Nam Prik Pao, but the process of making the chile jam helps you slow down, maybe while reciting: Salad, it’s worth it. Plus, the jam will pay its due in other dishes: Submerge cauliflower in the dressing before roasting it in the oven; swirl it through a pot of lentils or soup; drizzle it atop eggs or greens, noodles or rice. You might even forget about that other hot sauce—what was it called?

The chile jam gets a zip of lime juice, fish sauce, and bird’s-eye chile so it can ballerina-toe around the poppy veg—or as much as an umami-heavy chile jam could possibly bounce about.

So yes, this salad has steps—you’re frying greens and garlic and chiles, you're preparing vegetables three different ways—but let’s drop the fact that it’s called a salad, make it for dinner (maybe tomorrow night—once you've acquired all the ingredients), and you’ll forget you were planning on sticking a chicken in that vat of oil instead.

Yum Yai Salad

Serves 4

1/4 cup Nam Prik Pao (chile jam)
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons chopped palm sugar
1 pinch chopped bird's-eye chile
1 medium English cucumber, peeled
1 large carrot, peeled
2 cups vegetable oil, for frying
3/4 cup ice-cold water
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cups small whole green leaves, like baby kale, shiso leaves, pea shoots, or arugula
3 radishes, very thinly sliced
6 ounces blanched green beans or wax beans
2 cups any mixed greens or torn lettuce leaves

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Bobbi Lin

Tags: thai, salad, thai food, tempura, chile, chile jam, main dish salad