Salads are an integral part of a Thai meal. Growing up in Thailand, there were few dinners that didn’t involve some sort of a salad. And it’s not because we wanted to make sure we ate our vegetables! In fact, most of our salads are protein-centric with few veggies. Salads are typically served because they serve as the “fresh” component of a well-balanced Thai meal. So if you want to experience a Thai meal like a Thai, learning about our salads is absolutely crucial.
There are hundreds of variations of Thai salads, but generally speaking, they can all be grouped into four distinct categories: yam, tam, laab, and pla. While these differents styles of salads share many ingredients, they each have defining characteristics, especially in terms of culinary technique. The good news is that once you learn the basic principles of these four types of salad, you'll easily be able to make all of their variations, and even experiment on your own without a recipe.
I’ve been teaching Thai cooking for over 12 years and my philosophy has always been to go beyond recipes and look at the bigger picture to understand the overarching themes, since that's how you really “get” a cuisine.
The Four Key Ingredients of Thai Salad Dressings
Before diving into the four main styles of Thai salads, let’s first look at the dressing, as it's a component that's shared across the categories. Thai salad dressings typically use the same staple ingredients. This is not an exhaustive list. Rather, these are the four main ingredients added to most dressings.
Fish sauce: I can't think of a Thai salad that doesn’t incorporate fish sauce. It’s the main seasoning element that lends saltiness and umami to the dish. Because fish sauce plays such a prominent role in Thai salads, it’s important to use a high quality product, like fish sauce produced by the brands Red Boat, Squid, or Three Crabs.
Lime juice: Unlike Western vinaigrettes and dressings that use all kinds of vinegars and citrus to provide acidity, Thai salads all feature fresh lime juice as the main source of sourness. Some salads supplement lime juice with tamarind paste for extra pucker, but that’s pretty much it.
Sugar: With a few exceptions, most Thai salads are sweetened with sugar to help balance the salinity and acidity of the dressing. Both granulated white sugar and palm sugar are commonly used, although sometimes nam prik pao, a sweet and savory Thai chile jam, is used to give a salad sweetness with extra depth of flavor.
Chiles: Thai salads can range from mildly spicy to burning hot, but every Thai salad has at least some chile heat. Both fresh and dried chiles are used, delivering a sharp capsaicin bite or a more subdued, slow-building background heat, depending on the type of salad.
The Four Categories of Thai Salads
There are no words in Thai that can be translated as “salad,” but we have several words for categories of dishes that are made by tossing ingredients together with a dressing (like a salad!). There are four main categories of Thai salads as described below, and these cover the vast majority the salads you’ll come across, in Thailand or otherwise, and anything not covered here would be lesser-known, region-specific dishes.
In terms of the ingredients that can be tossed with this dressing, you can yam pretty much anything (and, yes, yam is a verb), from meats and eggs to noodles and vegetables, and even leftovers in your fridge. Most traditional yams are made with a protein as the main ingredient, paired with some crunchy vegetables like onions or Chinese celery as well as others, like tomatoes, to provide balance. Fresh herbs like cilantro and scallions are usually added to a yam to lend it a bright finish.
Examples of Yam
Yam Khai Dao: A yam in which the primary protein is fried eggs.
Yam Woon Sen: A yam featuring glass noodles, poached ground pork, and poached shrimp.
How to Make Yam
- Make the dressing. Start by pounding fresh chiles in a mortar and pestle into a paste. If using palm sugar, add it to the mortar, and pound until it has mostly dissolved into the paste. Finish the dressing by stirring in the liquid ingredients—fish sauce and lime juice—until the palm sugar is fully dissolved.
- Cook any components that require cooking. Whether you’re frying eggs for yam khai dao or simmering shrimp, pork, and glass noodles for yam woon sen, get any cooking done once you’ve finished making the dressing.
- Dress, garnish, and serve. All that’s left to do is toss everything together with the dressing and add any garnishes before serving. Along with fresh herbs, you might consider topping a yam with some roasted peanuts or cashews if the salad is lacking in the crunch department.
Note: If you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can finely mince the chiles and stir everything together, though if using palm sugar you’ll want to chop it finely and make sure it has enough time to fully dissolve in the dressing.
Tam-style salads are pounded salads found in both Thai and Lao cuisines. Som tam, which combines the word for sour (som) and the term for pounding in a mortar (tam), has become synonymous with green papaya salad, which is easily the most well-known tam-style salad. But there are countless variations on the theme that use ingredients beyond green papaya, such as cucumber or corn.
Like a prik gaeng (curry paste), tam salads come together by pounding ingredients together in a mortar and pestle. However, unlike with a curry paste, the goal isn't to pound the ingredients into a fine paste, but rather to lightly crush and bruise them just until they release their aromas, after which they're all mixed together in the mortar. This gentler pounding process requires the use of a large clay or wooden mortar with a wooden pestle, rather than the granite kind used to make curry pastes. Along with giving you the ability to pound with a lighter touch, this larger mortar also works as a mixing bowl, allowing you to toss the ingredients together with a large spoon after pounding. This style of mortar comes in a variety of sizes, but even if you don’t go with an extra-large model, you can use the mortar to make the salad up until you no longer have room, then transfer the ingredients to a mixing bowl for the final mix since you don’t really need to pound in the final stages anyway.
The basic dressing for tam includes fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, garlic and fresh chiles. Tamarind paste is often used in combination with lime juice for a more well-rounded acidity, and sometimes pla ra—an unfiltered fermented fish sauce—is added for a funky savory note. The flavor profile of a tam salad can vary widely depending on peoples’ preferences, and can be easily adjusted with an extra dash of fish sauce, squeeze of lime, or spoonful of sugar to fit individual tastes. Although seeing as sour (som) is one of the main features of tam salads, it should be prominently featured.
A yam is the most generic type of Thai salad with the least number of “rules.” Yam (pronounced “yahm”) salads are characterized by a bright, balanced dressing that contains the “primary” flavors commonly associated with Thai cooking—spicy, sour, salty, and sweet—in the form of fresh chiles, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Sometimes garlic, nam prik pao, and/or coconut milk are added for a more distinct flavor.
Unlike the other types of salads, tam is the one category that does not generally use a protein as the main ingredient. As I noted above, shredded green papaya is the most popular som tam ingredient, with long beans and tomatoes also playing supporting roles in most tam-style salads. Cucumber, corn, Thai eggplant, or rice noodles are some other commonly used ingredients, but anything is game, including fruits like apples! Some other “flourishes” you’ll see frequently are roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, salted duck eggs, and little pickled crabs.
Examples of Tam
Som Tam Thai: Green papaya salad, the most famous tam in the world.
Tam Khao Pod Kai Kem: A tam that features cured duck eggs and fresh sweet corn.
Basic Method for Making Tam
- Pound the aromatics and hard-to-break-down ingredients. Start by pounding aromatics like garlic and chiles into a very coarse paste. Next up, palm sugar and dried shrimp. Pound these until the shrimp are slightly broken down and the palm sugar is mostly dissolved. If you are incorporating roasted nuts into the salad you can pound them at this point, just until they break apart, making sure not to turn them into nut butter.
- Add in and pound vegetables that benefit from bruising. Pound vegetables like long beans and tomatoes just until they bruise and release their juices. Again, the goal is to bruise the ingredients, not turn them into a paste.
- Stir in liquids and finish the dressing. Add fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind, and other liquid ingredients like pla ra. Use the pestle to stir, working it against the sides of the mortar to completely dissolve the palm sugar and make sure it's well-incorporated in the dressing.
- Incorporate additional vegetables and serve. Finally, you add the vegetables you want to mostly just toss with the dressing, which will be the main ingredients of a tam salad. Depending on what kind of tam it is, you may not want to pound any more at this point, and all that’s left to do is simply stir with a large spoon to mix. For example, if you're using corn and want to keep it in chunks rather than individual kernels, or if you're incorporating apples, you don't really want to pound at all. For firmer ingredients, like shredded green papaya or cabbage, you can lightly pound them in the mortar while also mixing everything with a large spoon, until they are slightly wilted and mixed in with the rest of the salad. Take care not to over-pound at this stage since you want to retain the fresh crunch of these ingredients. Serve the salad right away to make sure the ingredients don’t become soggy as they sit in the dressing.
Laab and Nam Tok
First things first, it's laab not laRRRRb. If you're wondering whether laab and larb are the same thing, yes, they are. While there are many common transliterations for laab, laab and laap provide much better approximations of the correct pronunciation for the word in Thai, as the "ar" sound in English resembles the Thai pronunciation the least.
Laab is a style of salad found primarily in northeastern Thailand and Laos, typically made with finely chopped or ground meats that are cooked and then tossed with a simple dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and coarsely ground dried chiles, along with fresh herbs, particularly mint, and, most important of all, khao khua, or toasted-rice powder.
Khao khua is made by dry-toasting uncooked rice until it turns dark brown and takes on a beautiful toasty aroma, and then grinding the rice into a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Traditionally it is made with sticky rice, the main type of rice consumed in the Northeast region of Isan (steamed sticky rice is also always served with laab). However, in recent years I’ve started making khao khua with jasmine rice because I find it more aromatic. Toasted-rice powder is a non-negotiable ingredient for laab. It's the defining flavor of this dish that cannot be omitted or substituted.
The typical main ingredient for laab is meat; pork, chicken, beef, and duck are all fair game. Laab has its roots as a “whole animal” preparation made with whatever was available, which explains the abundance of herbs and chiles used in the salad, as they help mask any gaminess of the meat. Because of this, in Thailand you’ll often find the corresponding offal added to laab as well—such as pork laab with pork liver, intestine, and skin added to the minced pork shoulder. Modern day laab has become more simplified since now we get to pick and choose whatever part of the animal we want from the store!
The freshness in laab comes from loads of fresh herbs and aromatics. Shallots, mint, cilantro, and scallions are standard ingredients, but people also sometimes add culantro (a.k.a. sawtooth coriander), lemongrass, galangal, and makrut lime leaves. As mentioned earlier, fresh mint leaves are an absolute must. Like toasted rice powder, mint is one of the key components of laab.
The leading flavors of laab should be sour and spicy, with a savory-salty finish from fish sauce. Unlike other salads, sugar does not feature prominently in laab, as the natural sweetness and richness from the meat works to balance the heat of the chiles and acidity of the lime juice. The steamed sticky rice served alongside laab also works to temper the sharp, assertive seasoning of the salad. That said, it wouldn’t be “wrong” to add a pinch of sugar to a laab if you felt like it needed it.
I also want to quickly mention nam tok here because it’s basically the same as a laab, but instead of chopped meat it uses grilled and thinly sliced meats. Grilled pork jowl and beef steaks are two most popular choices of meats for nam tok.
Example of Laab
Laab Moo Isan: A laab that features minced, poached pork as its main ingredient.
Basic Method for Making Laab
- Cook the meat. Making laab is a simple one-pot affair. Start by cooking the meat in a saucepan with just a tiny splash of water (no oil!), stirring constantly, until it is just cooked through. You don’t want any browning—the goal is to keep the meat moist, and its flavor should be a complementary feature in the salad, not the focal point.
- Add seasonings and aromatics off-heat. Once the meat is fully cooked, take the saucepan off-heat, and add fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles. These ingredients combine with liquid released by the meat during the cooking process to form a dressing that is readily absorbed by the still-warm meat. At this point you can also add thinly sliced aromatics like shallot, lemongrass, and makrut lime leaves; the residual heat in the saucepan helps take the sharp raw edge off of them without sacrificing their aroma and texture.
- Cool slightly then stir in delicate herbs and khao khua. Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes before stirring in fresh herbs that wilt and bruise when subjected to high heat. Sturdier herbs like culantro, scallions, and stemmy cilantro can be added while the mixture is still warm, just not piping hot. Mint is the most vital fresh herb for laab, and it’s best to hold off on adding it until right before serving, as it will bruise, blacken, and turn bitter if left to marinate in the acidic dressing with the warm meat. You can serve laab warm or at room temperature, so you can hold off on adding the final touches while you get the rest of the meal ready. Wait until the last moment to add the khao khua as well. The toasted-rice powder helps to thicken the dressing and lends a subtle, pleasant crunch to the salad, but if you stir it in too early it will really soak up the dressing and become gloopy. Make sure to have all of the other components of your meal, like the sticky rice that always accompanies laab, ready to go before stirring in the khao khua and mint, and then serve right away.
If you are making nam tok, the process is exactly the same except for cooking the meat. For nam tok, grill and then thinly slice cuts of meat like pork jowl, flank steak, skirt steak, or hanger steak before tossing the slices with the dressing.
The way in which pla salads are prepared has changed over time. Traditionally, pla-style salads were made with thinly sliced raw beef or seafood that was “cooked” with the acid of lime juice, much like ceviche, and then tossed with fresh herbs, chiles, and a dressing. Nowadays, this practice has become quite rare (no pun intended), and the meat or seafood is either fully or partially cooked before being tossed with the acidic dressing, presumably because people have become less inclined to eat raw proteins due to food-safety concerns
So most of the time when you eat pla today, it will be a salad made from lightly cooked shrimp, beef, or fish. The dressing—a combination of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chile—is similar to a standard yam dressing, but Thai chile paste or dried roasted chile flakes are often added to impart an extra layer of heat. The protein is given time to marinate with the dressing, along with ingredients like sliced lemongrass, mint, and any other available fresh Thai herbs.
Basic Method for Making Pla
- For traditional pla. Marinate thinly sliced raw proteins with lime juice. For new-school pla, lightly cook the protein. If you want to make “old school” pla, start out with thinly sliced raw beef, shrimp, or fish. Toss it with lime juice and let it sit for at least five minutes while you make the rest of the dressing with fish sauce, chiles, and sugar, or any other seasonings.
- For a more modern, cooked pla. Use whichever cooking technique matches best with your protein of choice. For shrimp, poaching and grilling are great options. For steak, grilling or pan-searing are ideal. You can decide whether to cook the proteins to rare, medium, or all the way through.
- Dress and serve. Once the protein turns opaque and takes on the texture that you like (you can read more about the science of marinades here)—for new-school pla, once the meat or seafood has rested after cooking and has been sliced it into pieces—toss it with the dressing, along with fresh herbs such as lemongrass, cilantro, scallions, and makrut lime leaves. Serve pla with jasmine rice.
Go Make Some Salads!
Now that you know about the major types of Thai salad, it’s time to start cooking! If you’ve never had a Thai salad before, I suggest starting out with one of the traditional recipes linked here so you have a reference point. Then, you can experiment! Salads in Thailand are just as flexible as they are in the West, so don’t be afraid to try out different combinations of ingredients. Remember that Thai salads are not meant to be served on their own, so for the full experience, make a meal out of it with rice and maybe a curry. If you need some ideas, my guide for how to compose a well-balanced Thai meal can help you figure out what else to serve with all the delicious Thai salads you're going to make.