Like many other people, I am trying to eat healthier and make better choices with my food. As much as I love eating Pad Thai, it is good to have some variety in your meals. So I started searching for some healthier options when I started to notice something interesting. There seems to be a big variety of salads that are commonly available. A quick look at Wikipedia will show you that these salads can be split into four groups based on their name and how they are prepared. This is a good opportunity to learn some new Thai vocabulary, and so we will be covering this today.
As I said above, there seem to be four main groups that salads can be split into based on certain things. This includes how they are prepared and what is included in them. Of course, Thai salads do share some elements. They all include a mixture of ingredients, typically a mixture of meat, noodles, and vegetables in a sauce. They usually have a sour and spicy flavor and are served with fresh herbs.
The word ‘tam’ (ตำ) is in fact a verb meaning to pound. This understandably refers to how this type of salad is made. Perhaps the most famous example is ‘sôm-tam’ (ส้มตำ) - sometimes called papaya pok pok - which is green papaya salad. The name comes from the fact that the ingredients for this fiery salad are all pounded together in a giant mortar, which is known as a ‘krok’ (ครก). You will see this for yourself when ordering as they are made fresh. The pounding actually helps to release more flavor from the ingredients, making for a much tastier dish. The flavors and ingredients will change slightly as you move around the country. Some regions prefer it spicier while others make it less sour. Another example that fits in this category is the Thai fruit salad, known as ‘tam pǒn-lá-mái’ (ส้มตำผลไม้) where ‘pǒn-lá-mái’ (ผลไม้) means fruit in Thai. Thailand has plenty of delicious tropical fruits, so it only makes sense to mix them together into a salad. It still uses many of the same ingredients as som tam, but it adds a sweeter element to an otherwise intense dish which helps to balance things out.
If you come across a ‘phla’ (พล่า) salad, you are in for a treat. One of the main characteristics of phla is the use of lemongrass and mint, both flavors that are synonymous with Thai cuisine. The meat included in the dish is often served rare, creating a more unique texture. It does not usually include as many vegetables as some of the other dishes we have talked about, but it is still a fresh dish to enjoy. Most often, you will come across ‘phla goong’ (พล่ากุ้ง) which is made using shrimp. Pork is another popular ingredient, and so too is squid, known as ‘pla muek’ (ปลาหมึก).
The ‘yam’ (ยำ) style Thai salad is also popular, with many different options to choose from. The word means to mix, so as you can imagine, this type of salad primarily involves mixing together ingredients into tasty creations. If you are looking for something healthy, just look for the Thai characters above on the menu, and you can’t really go wrong. In Thailand, a yam salad can include a number of different ingredients, though there are several common sights. Herbs, spices, and vegetables are to be expected. Think coriander, peanuts, onions, and the like. Vermicelli noodles, known as ‘wuun sen’ (วุ้นเส้น), are also often included, such as in ‘yam wuun sen’ (ยำวุ้นเส้น). In terms of dressing, lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, and sugar are often used. Essentially anything can be mixed into a Thai salad. The ‘yam pla duk fu’ (ยำปลาดุกฟู) is a testament to that. It includes deep-fried catfish mixed with green mango, shallots, and a sweet dressing. If you are ordering a yam style salad, just know that there is no typical style. It may be the spiciest thing you have ever eaten or a sour treat.
Then there is ‘larb’ (ลาบ), which actually has its origins in Laos cuisine. For that reason, larb in Thailand is popular amongst those from Isaan, the region bordering the country and sharing many elements of its culture. Like phla salads, Larb does not usually contain many vegetables, if at all. You could probably best describe it as a meat salad. The defining feature of a larb salad is the flavor of the dressing. It contains the usual suspects of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and chilies. In addition to them, it contains toasted rice powder, known as ‘khao khua’ (ข้าวคั่ว). This is what gives larb its distinctive flavor that you can’t experience with the other types of Thai salads.
Perhaps not the most interesting article, I think it does reveal some interesting things about the Thai language. There is also some good vocabulary to be learned here, specifically some verbs you may find useful. Salads are also an important part of Thai cuisine, so you should definitely give some of these a try. Be careful though, Thai people do enjoy their food on the spicy side. Actually, I would say very spicy. Want to learn about more foods in Thailand and how to order? Give the Ling Thai app a try and start learning Thai at your own pace.