A tamarind shoot soup and mushrooms ready for the wok at Oo Khao Oo Pla restaurant. Photos: Chawadee Nualkhair
Deny it all you want, but chances are you’ve probably been a fan of some poppy boy band or girl group at some point. That’s OK – just own it. Like a McDonald’s hamburger or a Marlboro Light, these groups are commercially engineered to offer something for everyone, and keep them coming back for more. There’s always the innocent-looking one, the sexy one and the one with crazy hair. And we must not forget the “foreign” one, which may also be the one with crazy hair, or the hippie-ish, granola-crunchy one or the one with all the piercings. And then there is the one who likes sports. There’s always a sporty one.
These separate, bland elements become bigger than the sum of their parts when combined. A jumble of things that somehow makes sense when put together. Like a yum.
Yums, or Thai-style spicy salads, can be fashioned out of basically any ingredient in the Thai culinary lexicon, and they frequently are. With a little bit of sugar and a lot of fish sauce, lime juice and chili, any old thing – from grotty pomelos past their prime and cold fried eggs to blanched morning glory stalks – can become something far more interesting than the sad specimens in back of your refrigerator. It’s just a matter of figuring out which bizarre ingredients will combine to fill the balance of tart, salty, sweet and, of course, spicy that form the backbone of a yum, turning your want-to-throw-aways into need-to-eat-nows.
The best ingredients for a good yum are the culinary chameleons which take the flavor of any dressing that comes their way; hence, the focus on mildly sweet fruit flesh such as young coconut shoots, inoffensive meats such as shrimp or seared beef, and vegetables notorious for soaking up juice such as eggplant. Even ingredients known for occasionally overpowering the taste, such as lemongrass or crab eggs, take on a delicious yum-like quality when judiciously added to a whole bunch of other stuff.
It’s the dressing that plays the central role. Either a straight-up Thai “vinaigrette,” or in the case of winged bean salad, lashings of palm sugar and coconut cream. The other guys – bland and meaty, spicy, crunchy, sweet, herbal – take a backseat.
Typically served at a large family-style lunch or at dinner, yum has largely been seen as a restaurant dish, but streetside vendors – with the help of a gazillion little plastic bags – have elbowed their way into the yum scene, offering the dish with all the elements individually packaged and meant to be mixed at home before serving. The best vendors can be found along major pedestrian intersections, such as on Silom Road in front of Silom Complex.
I got this recipe from Chef At at Oo Khao Oo Pla, a restaurant in Nakhon Pathom that is just a few minutes down the road from Mahidol University. Served alongside the standard Thai meal of soup, rice, stir-fried vegetables and a chili dip, this yum was easily one of the best salads I’d had in a long time. If only the ‘N Sync that was playing while we ate … haha, just kidding. Things never work out that way.
Banana Blossom salad (yum hua plee) Serves four
1 banana blossom, julienned and kept in acidulated water to keep it from getting black
5 shrimp, cleaned and cooked
5 Tbs coconut milk
1 ½ rice serving spoons (tuppee) tamarind juice
½ Tb roasted chili paste
1 Tb granulated sugar
½ rice serving spoon (tuppee) fish sauce
Simmer shrimp and coconut milk over low flame.
Mix tamarind juice, roasted chili paste, sugar and fish sauce to make dressing. Adjust seasoning according to taste.
Add julienned banana blossom to dressing, adding more tamarind juice and/or coconut milk if too dry. Garnish with Thai basil, roasted peanuts and dried chilies.