Pok Pok’s Thai Cucumber Salad
I have to say that between the Grilled Pork Shoulder with Spicy Dipping Sauce and the Thai Cucumber Salad, I finally learned to use and love my neglected mortar and pestle. It was purchased years ago, back when I was just getting into cooking and going through the kitchen gadget acquisition phase. It’s one of those large heavy stone pieces, and it got placed in a corner of the kitchen and repurposed as a garlic holder. But when I started flipping through the Pok Pok cookbook and saw how many delicious recipes used a mortar and pestle, I knew I had to dust mine off.
I had chosen the Thai Cucumber Salad for its simplicity and use of summery ingredients. I enjoy cucumber and tomato in salads or gazpacho but this was a chance to try them with different flavours. I loved how easily the salad came together in the mortar and it was a pleasure to make. It’s a heavy duty piece of equipment and very efficient at pounding and crushing; no wonder it’s so commonly used in different cuisines around the world!
One thing that was particularly interesting about the recipe was its use of dried shrimp. Dried shrimp is commonly used in Chinese cooking and depending on what it’s used for, it may or may not be soaked. The cucumber salad recipe calls for soaking the shrimp and then frying them again to crisp up. Dried shrimp are already quite crispy and I don’t mind a bit of extra salt so I omitted the soaking/frying step. Since I was serving the salad with rice, I also omitted the vermicelli noodles but I would include them next time. With the noodles, the salad would be hearty enough for a refreshing summer meal. Perfect for when the days feel (almost) as warm as Thailand.
Thai Cucumber Salad
“Flavour Profile: Fiery, Sour, Salty, Barely Sweet
Try it With: Grilled meat, rice noodles, sticky rice”
– Adapted from Tam Taeng Kwaa (Thai Cucumber Salad) in Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker
Serves 2 to 6 as part of a meal
- 1 Tbsp medium-size dried shrimp, rinsed and patted dry
- 7g palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
- ¼ tsp water if using palm sugar
- ¼ of a small lime (preferably a Key lime), cut into 3 pieces
- 3g peeled garlic (about 1 medium clove), halved lengthwise
- 1g dried Thai chiles (about 4), soaked in lukewarm water just until pliable, about 10 minutes, then drained (adjust to your spice tolerance)
- 28g (½ cup) long beans, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 200g Persian, English, or Japanese cucumbers (or any firm variety without large seeds and thick, bitter skin), halved lengthwise and cut it into angled, irregular 3/4- to 1-inch chunks
- 12g (1 Tbsp) Thai fish sauce
- 12g (1 Tbsp) naam plaa raa (fermented fish sauce)
- 10g (1 Tbsp) lime juice (preferably from Key limes)
- 30g cherry tomatoes (about 4), halved, or quartered if very large
- 30g (3 generous Tablespoons) coarsely chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
- 60g dried Vietnamese or Thai dried rice vermicelli (optional), cooked according to package directions, blanched in ice water, and drained
Notes for success
- Once the lime, long beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peanuts have been cut and chopped, the salad comes together very quickly using a mortar and pestle.
- Long beans taste milder and sweeter than string beans. If using regular green beans, briefly blanch them for 30 seconds in simmering water before using them in the salad.
- If fermented fish sauce is not available, then double the amount of regular fish sauce in the dressing.
- Key limes are smaller and sweeter than regular limes. If key limes are not available, then use a small regular lime and add a small squeeze of Meyer lemon juice.
- (Optional) Heat a small dry pan or wok over medium heat, add the dried shrimp, and cook, stirring frequently, until they’re dry all the way through and slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Set them aside in a small bowl to cool.
- (If using palm sugar) Put the palm sugar in a small microwavable bowl, sprinkle on the 1/4 teaspoon of water, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and microwave on low just until the sugar has softened (not liquefied), about 10 seconds. Check the sugar and microwave again briefly if necessary.
- Combine the garlic, chiles, and softened palm sugar (or brown sugar) in a large clay or stone mortar and pound just until you have a chunky sludge with small but visible pieces of garlic and slightly broken down chiles (do not turn the chiles into mush), about 5 to 10 seconds.
- Add the 3 lime pieces and pound very lightly and briefly, just to release the juice. Add the shrimp, pound lightly just to release their flavor (don’t smash or pulverize them), then add the long beans and pound lightly to bruise them (they should not break into pieces or dramatically flatten).
- Add the cucumber, both fish sauces, and the lime juice.
- The next step is easy but subtle. You want to use the pestle to barely bruise the cucumber (lightly pounding at a slight angle, not directly up-and-down) for about 10 seconds, while simultaneously using a large spoon to scoop up from the bottom of the mortar, essentially tossing the cucumber, palm sugar mixture, and the other ingredients as you pound. Do not smash the cucumber.
- Add the tomatoes and pound lightly, just to release the juices. Add the peanuts and mix briefly but well with the spoon.
- If you’re using the noodles, put them on a plate with raised edges or in a shallow bowl. Spoon the contents of the mortar, liquid and all, over them. Stir well before you eat.
Grilled Pork Shoulder and Spicy Dipping Sauce, Steamed Rice, Thai Cucumber Salad