I really love South East Asian style salads. I love how they’re usually zingy and spicy, and full of fresh flavours. Thai salads are some of my all-time favourite foods, and if I go to a Thai restaurant, that’s what I’ll usually order. Larb (spicy minced meat salad), yam wun sen (vermicelli and seafood salad), yam neua (sliced steak salad) – I haven’t come across one I don’t like yet.
I decided the other day that I hadn’t made a Thai salad in a while and it was time to try a different one from my usual rotation. As part of my determination to eat more fish, I decided to have a go at yam plaa – a crispy fish salad.
This is slightly sweeter than the other salads I usually have, but still has all the characteristic salty, spicy and sour components in the dressing. It is quite unusual in that there is ground turmeric in the dressing and it also incorporates an interesting way to prepare fish. First it’s salted, then cooked and dried out slightly before being blitzed up. Lastly, it’s fried to make something not unlike breadcrumbs in terms of texture, but definitely not in terms of flavour.
I adapted the recipe from The Food of Thailand – I didn’t include shallots as it seemed a little bit of an onion overkill to have a whole red onion and two shallots in the salad. But go ahead and add two finely sliced shallots if you really love onion!
It makes a delicious meal – sweet tomatoes, fresh herbs, sharp onion, crunchy fish and peanuts, and a dressing which has a good amount of heat, zing and sweetness. I served it with some rice and stir fried gai lan.
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, roughly chopped
3-4 bird’s eyes chillies, stems removed
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsps lime juice
2 tsps palm sugar
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
300g skinless firm white fish fillets
1 Tbsp sea salt
peanut oil, for shallow frying
3 tomatoes, or equivalent in cherry tomatoes, cut into wedges
1 small red onion, sliced into thin wedges
1/2 C coriander leaves
18-24 mint leaves
2 Tbsps roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Pat dry the fish fillets, then toss them in the sea salt. Place them on a rack over a baking tray and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. Transfer to a food processor and chop until the fish resembles large breadcrumbs.
While the fish is cooking, make the dressing by using a pestle and mortar or food processor to pound or blend the lemongrass, chillies and garlic to a paste. Transfer to a bowl and add the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and turmeric. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
Fill the bottom of a wok or pan with a generous amount of oil to allow for shallow frying (a non stick pan works best if you don’t want a mess at the bottom of your pan). Heat over a high heat. Drop a small piece of fish into the oil. If it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready. Drop a large handful of the chopped fish into the hot oil. The fish will puff up and turn crisp. Cook until golden brown, stirring gently every so often. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat to cook all the fish. (You can do it all at once if you have a big pan and a lot of oil – it will take a bit longer though. Don’t overcrowd your pan or it won’t fry properly.)
Put the tomatoes, red onion, coriander leaves, mint leaves and peanuts in a bowl with about half of the dressing. Transfer the salad to a serving plate. Break the fish into smaller pieces if you wsh and place on the salad. To ensure the fish stays crispy, pour the remaining dressing over the salad just before serving.