Where Yam Is a Salad, Not a Potato


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

To try a recipe for a salad of pork, young ginger, and squid, click here, and for a grilled eggplant salad recipe, click here. Yam.

To most people in America, it's a side dish on Thanksgiving. But in Thailand, yam is a salad of intrinsic complexity. It's as simple to make as chopping seafood, meat, or vegetables, blanching them, and mastering a dressing. Try making a few yam in your home kitchen, and soon you might be besting your local Thai restaurant. It's not tricky, nor is it troublesome.

Yam, when pronounced correctly, sounds like a collision of that relative of the sweet potato and a word we utter when in the presence of deliciousness. They are also one of Thai cooking's great pleasures. Yam often counter the richly spiced coconut curries served in a Central Thai meal, but can also be eaten alone, or as a companion to any grilled or fried dish. That's not to say they're not spicy--because they most certainly should be--but it's a bright and fleeting spice, held aloft by lime juice and infused with the addictive savory of fish sauce.
It's a bright and fleeting spice, held aloft by lime juice and infused with the addictive savory of fish sauce.

There are many styles, but the reason I'm writing this is because I was recently inspired by two: grilled eggplant yam (yam makrua yao), where sour, salt, smoke, and spice meet in a dish of refreshing sophistication; and squid yam (yam pla muek) where toothsome strips of squid mingle with heat and lime juice and pork in a logical and delightful pairing.

I ate them both last week inside a bustling tent just near my house, on the lip of Narithiwas Road in Bangkok. The winter has finally descended upon us, which means a brief respite from the relentless humidity and thundering rains of summer.

And that means that Bangkokians hit the streets with relish, eating grilled fish or curries or chicken, chasing them with these sour and savory salads and icy glasses of beer. It's a comfortable (sabai) season of eating, and for us that's something to celebrate.

Note: These yam should be paired with other Thai dishes--or other assertively spiced Asian dishes. They'll both work well as a side for grilled or fried chicken, grilled or steamed fish, stir-fries, or curries. The dressings will also work well for a variety of salads from green beans to cucumbers to beef, so feel free to apply them to anything rattling around in your fridge. These two dressings are great unifiers--but don't forget the shallots (onions work too).