The summer going into my junior year of high school, I spent six weeks traveling around Thailand. Other Asian countries offered the same sort of immersion program I was on, so I really couldn’t tell you why I chose Thailand in particular. All I remember is that my dad didn’t want me to go, which turned my idea into an obsession.
That was eight years ago, and I have been plotting my return ever since. Until I can carve out a chunk of time to rival my first excursion, I’ve been channeling my interest in Thai culture into the constant cooking and eating (well, mainly eating) of the country’s food. I took my first cooking class ever in Chiang Mai, and when I returned home, I continued to practice my Pad Thai, Spring Rolls, Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Green Curry, and Papaya Salad with the little twine-bound cookbook we had been given at the end of the course.
The few dishes not included in its pages were some of my favorites: spicy meat salads like Laab and Yam Neua from Isaan, where I spent two weeks living with a family in a small rice-farming village. Luckily, the flavors could live on in my mind through the many sub-par Thai take-out joints on St. Mark’s Place. But recently, thanks to a contest for your Best Beef Salad on Food52, I began experimenting with a bastardized version of my two favorites — Green Papaya Salad (Som Tum) and Spicy Beef Salad (Yam Neua). The two are usually eaten in tandem at the table, alternated between mouthfuls of sticky rice, and are dressed with the classic Thai combination of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and just as much chile as you can stand.
Both Som Tum and Yam Neua are usually set atop a small bed of undressed shredded lettuce, which acts more like a garnish than a base. I chose to use mizuna, which is normally found in Japanese cooking, to give the beef an extra peppery bite. — Phoebe