The Isaan Issue!
So here it is, my first original recipe post on this (soon to be) wonderful blog of mine! I didn’t particularly plan to make these dishes for the purpose of the blog, or plan them out too much either, but the wonderful thing about these is that they allows for some trial & error and customisation; just remember, as the old adage says, you can always add, but you can’t take away.
I first experienced these dishes while living in Thailand when I was teaching English with a charity for a year before coming back to Scotland to attend university in Glasgow; and subsequently become a philosopher who spends most of his time in kitchen. Both salads are of Laos origin, but have become a mainstay of Thai restaurants everywhere due to the spread of Isaan food and culture from the borders of North East Thailand. There’s not exactly a right or wrong way to make either of these dishes, as a quick search of the web shall show, so don’t worry too much about not having certain ingredients. As you’ll see, my versions of the dishes here came simply from what I could get my hands on at the time.
Som Tam, which is usually made with green, unripe papaya, is one of my favourite things ever. To me it is the epitome of the Thai/Laos method of balancing flavours and textures. - You have the spice of the chilli, the sour tang of lime juice, the salty/savoury fish sauce, and the sweetness of the palm sugar; all mingling in the textures of crunchy green papaya (or cucumber in this case) and peanuts, the slight rubbery chew of the green beans, and the soft flesh of the tomatoes. If your mouth isn’t watering yet you may have a problem…
As I’ve already said, you can substitute the cucumber for any number of fruit/vegetables. I’ve done this recipe with unripe green mangoes before, but you could use the likes of pomelo, carrot, courgette (julienned, salted, left for 30mins to an hour, and squeezed to remove extra moisture), or any mix and match of ingredients with a reasonable crunch or bite.
Som Tam Taengwaa (Laos Cucumber Salad)
1 Large Cucumber
200g Green Beans
4 Cloves Garlic
2 Red Chillies
4-5 tsp Fish Sauce
4-5 tsp Fresh Lime Juice
3-4 tsp Palm Sugar
1 handful of Pistachios (for garnish/topping)
Roughly chop the garlic and chilli. Pound with a pestle and mortar, or use a knife and a touch of coarse sea salt to make a rough paste on your chopping board.
Remove tips of green beans and cut into 2” sections before adding to mortar. Pound with garlic and chilli until beginning to bruise and break up. (You can just hit them with the back/side of a knife is you have no mortar and pestle)
Add roughly chopped tomatoes, fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar. Combine well with a spoon and break up tomatoes slightly.
Julienne cucumber (I use a julienne peeler, as do most Thai/Laos restaurants, but a julienne attachment on a mandolin or some more time consuming hand chopping will work equally well) leaving some of the watery centre behind, and add to the mortar if large enough, or combine with the contents of the mortar in a suitable bowl.
Mix all the ingredients together well and allow to sit and mingle for a while. You’ll find more of the tasty som tam sauce develops as the salt in the fish sauce draws out the tomato and cucumber juices.
Taste and add more fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and or chilli to taste.
Stir well once more and plate up with a generous amount of chopped pistachios (I would normally use peanuts but was all out) sprinkled over the top.
Laap/Larp on the other hand is salad for carnivores. Apart from some onion and herbs, it’s all meat (oh yeaaaah). Laap is usually eaten as a side dish rather than a main event, as is som tam; not that that’s stopped me before… A common sight in Thailand and Laos would be a number of people sharing plates of laap (either pork or chicken), som tam, grilled chicken or pork, and sticky rice. By making balls from the sticky rice, which is eaten with your hands, you can also soak up any excess sauce and savour every last drop! In my version here I have replaced the usual minced pork or chicken with grilled pork steaks that I then diced up. I have similarly omitted ground toasted rice due to my lacking a mortar and pestle on the day, but would thoroughly recommend adding it yourself. I would also recommend giving lemon mint a try if you can find it, as it added a whole other dimension to the dish.
Modified Laap Muu (Lao Pork Salad)
500g Pork Loin Steaks
1 medium Onion
1-2 Red or Green Chillies
1-2 tbsp Mint
3-4 tsp Fresh Lime Juice
3-4 tsp Fish Sauce
3 tsp Vegetable Oil
2 tsp Sesame Oil
Grill pork loin steaks on bbq or griddle pan until just cooked and nicely coloured on both sides. Put to side to allow to cool.
Heat oils in pan. Finely dice the onion and chilli before adding to pan. Cook out to remove raw onion taste while retaining a bit of bite.
Once cool enough to handle, dice cooked pork steaks and add to pan.
(This is when I would normally add the ground toasted rice)
Add lime juice and fish sauce. Combine and cook momentarily before removing from heat and adding finely chopped mint (I used lemon mint in this instance which added a really interesting floral taste).
Allow to cool until just warm or room temperature, season to taste with added fish sauce and lime, garnish with extra mint leaves and serve.
Oh, this all just takes me back to visiting friends in Isaan, eating som tam, laap muu and grilled chicken (gai yang) at the side of the road, and then getting horrendously drunk on rice whiskey (lao khao) and M-150 (Thai red-bull)…
Well maybe not so much the last bit… lao khao tastes like petrol.