The Department of Salad #17: A Thai One
A garment, an automobile, a dish of cooked food, a gesture, a film, a piece of music, an advertising image, a piece of furniture, a newspaper headline. . . a salad.
NOTE: This issue is for all subscribers, but it will be the last full free issue for non-paying subscribers until mid-April. (I may send a few little things out before then.)
WHEN I CHATTED WITH KAY PLUNKETT-HOGGE on a recent rainy night, she told me that she still had “the wobbles” from her October move to Bangkok. She seemed remarkably placid, though, still dressed in an elegant white robe and white turban, like Marilyn Monroe waiting for her makeup (it was 8 a.m. there, bright and warm).
I thought: who the hell wakes up like this? But as we continued our Zoom-talk, I realized that Bangkok simply agrees with her—and seems to be exactly where she belongs.
Plunkett-Hogge—who was accompanied from London to Thailand by her dogs and her writer husband, Fred Hogge—has had an enviable, adventurous career as a food and drinks writer that has taken her around the world. (Her many books include Sherry and A Little Plate of Tapas, Aperitivo: Drinks and Snacks for The Dolce Vita, Heat: Cooking with Chilies, and Make Mine A Martini, as well as cookbooks coauthored with the actor Stanley Tucci, the artisanal pizza pioneer Chris Bianco, and chef Bryn Williams.
But she’s also lived previous non-writer lives, which she recounts in her witty and winsome 2017 memoir, “Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl.”
She was born in Bangkok, where her father was dispatched in 1961 as part of his promotion by Ford Motor Company. “I spoke Thai before I spoke English,” says Plunkett-Hogge, who has dual citizenship and still thinks in Thai.
In the 60s and 70s, her parents entertained a lot, so they hired an excellent cook, whose name was Prayoon and who ruled over not one but two kitchens—one indoors for Western cooking and another one outside with a charcoal fire for Thai cooking. The latter is where Plunkett-Hogge spent much of her time, like an adoring little culinary student, absorbing everything Yoon showed her, pounding chilies and garlic, and chopping herbs.
She’d grow up to pursue fashion and film careers in New York, Los Angeles, and (most recently) London, before finally turning back to her childhood obsession—food—full time.
And food led her, full circle, back home to Bangkok, where she has just settled into a sunny apartment right down the street from the house where her British parents raised her.
In her latest book, Baan: Recipes and Stories from My Thai Home, she points out that baan literally means a house or a village. But “it goes deeper than that: It’s a word that stems from various dialects of the Thai language family. Baan means the heart, the home, the community, the place where you come from.”
Among all the world cuisines she’s experienced, her heart belongs to Thai food, which is as indelibly imprinted on her as the Thai language is. And like any language, she pointed out, food is ever-changing, constantly influenced by our shifting cultures—the forces of travel, migration, memory, necessity, and the simple human desire to adapt and reinvent.
“You just can’t keep food in a bubble. It has to evolve.” she said.
“Massaman curry, for instance. It’s a huge part of the culture and the food here. But it came from Persia in the 17th century. A renowned family of merchants, some of whom are still here, brought those dishes with them. It was a fruit-based stew that the Thais turned into Massaman curry, with some Indian influences also in there. And you’ve got the massive Chinese influence with noodles. Plus, a huge influence from Portuguese tradesmen—who were among the first foreigns to come through. They’re the reason we’ve got egg custard tarts here as well as a lot of desserts made with duck eggs and sugar—that all comes from the Portuguese.”
Food’s transformation happens slowly and at breakneck speed; over the long term and the short; in ways that become significant or vestigial. And it can be welcome or jarring, depending on where you sit.
For instance, when we finally got around to the topic of Thai salads—the splendid Yums, the Laarps, and the Tums, Plunkett-Hogge recalled the worst salad she’d ever had in Thailand
“The first time I came here with Fred, we were down on the coast, and it was really hot, so we found an air-conditioned restaurant and had a beer. I said to the waitress, Well, what should we have, what do you recommend for us? And she said: Oh, we have a sausage salad that is fantastic. And I said great because I imagined it would probably be lap cheong, the amazing wind-dried Chinese sausages.”
But when it arrived, she says, “It was Plumrose tinned wieners, with a Thai dressing, on a piece of iceberg lettuce.”
Clearly not what she was hoping for. But it was surely beloved by someone, somewhere—perhaps the chef’s mother fed it to him as a child? God only knows. And only God can judge.
Besides, in Thailand, she says, a salad can be absolutely anything: the diverse Yums can be “fiery or delicate, simple or complex.” Laarp is a salad simply by virtue of being served alongside lettuce leaves. And the most popular Tum, the Som Tum Thai (pounded green papaya), has a “million variations” that cause most people to overlook the mouth-puckering raw green banana version.
Plunkett-Hogge sent me personal snaps—which I can’t resist sharing here— of two of her favorite restaurant salads, the first of which seems to have involved a trip to Virginia. “It’s from a restaurant around the corner that’s been there since 1949, still run by the same family. This salad has been on the menu probably since the 50s or 60s. It’s wafer-thin smoked ham made into rosettes, each of which topped by a bird’s eye chili. And then it’s drenched with lime juice and fish sauce—a proper Thai dressing—and served with iceberg lettuce cups, peanuts, and coriander.”
Another favorite is this Yum Pad Kanna, a salad of Chinese broccoli and shrimp with a dressing made of evaporated milk, which she orders at a beach spot in Rayong.
In “Baan,” you’ll find salads made with fried garlic, pickled bamboo shoots, banana leaves, and seafood, among many other ingredients, all redolent of fish sauce, chilies, coriander, and lime.
But when Plunkett-Hogge gave me a salad to share with you, it was anything but “traditional.” It’s a longtime family favorite that was introduced to the Plunketts by way of Basque Frenchman and pilot (who was one of the last pilots out of Vientiane, in Laos). He was a family friend, and this salad is named for his girlfriend at the time, Nittaya, who created it.
Neither Thai, nor French, nor Lao, it’s a mashup take on the Niçoise, loaded up with nam pla (or fish sauce, one of her favorite ingredients) and with family memories, which speak to Plunkett-Hogge’s deep connection to Thailand.
It’s also a delicious testament to the fact that no matter how much or how little a certain food may change, it will always belong to someone, somewhere, and offer them a sense of belonging in the enormous, diverse, infinitely peckish family of man.
*RECIPE: Nit Salad or Salade Vientiane
Serves 4 as lunch
For the salad:
2 Romaine lettuces, trimmed and chopped
2 small endives, broken into leaves
4 spring onions (scallions), chopped
2 – 4 eggs, softly boiled (I do an 8 minute egg)
2 5-ounce tins of tuna in olive oil, drained
For the dressing:
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons nam pla (fish sauce)
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
few sprigs fresh dill (optional)
Mix the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl and leave to stand for as long as you can. Make sure you taste this as you go, to make sure you have the balance right. It should taste salty, lemony, peppery and garlicky, in harmony. People love to dunk their bread in it, so I have been known to double this. And if you don’t use it all, it will keep in a jar in the fridge for a few days.
Toss the leaves and chopped onions together in a big salad bowl. Peel and quarter the eggs, and add to the salad with the tuna.
Pour the dressing over the salad and toss together. Scatter with dill, if using.
Serve with French bread, of course.
SCARY STORY: I RECENTLY OPENED A SUITCASE in my unused closet and discovered that it had clothes in it, from around this time last year, when we all realized the pandemic was real. I got in my car and returned to North Carolina from Atlanta (where I was visiting my cousin), rolled the suitcase into the closet, and completely forgot about it.
In a lot of ways, my brain feels like that suitcase. Where is the Emily I used to be, before we all we all got rolled into this dark closet?
I’m a freak, and have begun to worry that I won’t have access to the pre-pandemic Emily. I liked her, a lot. What if she never comes back? I decided I would finally start keeping a notebook, hoping it would quell my worries that whatever makes me me—my soul?—had been flowing into the ether, unregulated, and into black space ever since the pandemic had begun. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
Anyway, blah blah blah—whatever. I just found a note I wrote to myself that said “Carrots are so pretty.” So, not a huge success, exactly—this notebook thing.
But at least it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to make carrot salad. Ever since Alex Stacey talked in issue #15 about how the French feed their children carottes râpées as a kind of starter salad. (They never really outgrow it. It’s ubiquitous, and they eat it the way Americans eat fries on the side.)
It couldn’t be simpler or more satisfying: you shred or grate a big pile of sweet carrot and then dress it simply with lemon (or vinegar) and olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe some parsley. (In general, you don’t have to make a dressing; you can just squeeze lemon all over the pile, drizzle with olive oil, toss, and adjust the salt and whatever herbs you add.)
But I wanted to do something new. After shredding 3 big piles, I made 3 salads. The first one was the plain salad I mentioned above (delicious; I added a little lemon zest and parsley).
The second one had those spicy, tart, funky Thai flavors (I’m still working on that one—it was good but it’s not ready to be shared; also, I forgot to write it down in my stupid notebook).
The third one was my big winner. I wanted a more elegant version of the retro American cafeteria version, with raisins. So I made some more pickled raisins, which is my new favorite thing on the planet (I got the idea from Abra Berens’s great book, Ruffage.) It was so good and easy that I’m thinking about buying a food processor—shredding on a box grater is fine, but I’d eat this every single day if I just had to push a button. Give it a try; I think it’s pretty glorious.
*RECIPE: Carrot Salad with Raspberry Pickled Raisins and Pistachios
For the pickled raisins:
1 cup raisins
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon molasses
¼ cup raspberry vinegar
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons raisin syrup (from the pickled raisins)
pinch of cayenne
pinch of salt and pepper
For the Salad:
2 cups of shredded carrot (if you’re using a box grater, shred the largest carrots you can find at a steep angle so that the pieces are long; you don’t want it grated, you want shreds)
1/2 cups pickled raisins (this is up to you, but half was enough for me)
1/2 roughly chopped flat leaf parsley (or more; I like a lot)
Squeeze of lemon
Flaky sea salt (to taste; I like a lot, at the end)
1/2 cup toasted salted pistachios, roughly chopped
To pickle the raisins: place them in a saucepan with the honey, molasses, vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for one minute. Remove from heat and let the raisins sit in the syrup for about 20 minutes. Strain the liquid and store it and the raisins in separate jars in the fridge.
To make the dressing: Add all the ingredients to a jar and shake until completely emulsified. Adjust flavors. You want it quite tart, so add more syrup if needed.
Place the carrots and parsley in a big bowl. Toss with the dressing. Taste. Adjust the salt. Squeeze a bit of lemon over it if it needs it, and mix again. Serve topped with the chopped pistachios. (Add these at the end, at the table.)
*Recipe: DOS Creamy Cucumber Salad with Dill
Another Thai influenced salad I’d planned to give you that had to be shelved: Plunkett-Hogge’s Tum Tang Kwa, or pounded cucumber salad, from Baan. I had everything I needed to make it except for the pla ra (Isaan fermented fish sauce), which, according to Plunkett-Hogge, has no good substitute. So I’m ordering some. And we can do that later.
But since I had a mess of cucumbers, I decided I’d give you a nice simple cucumber salad. In the south, we eat truckloads of cucumbers, sliced with onion and swimming in vinegar. And I often eat cucumbers with the Dreamy Lemon Cream Shallot dressing from Issue #14. But I also had dill, so I decided to kick that cream and cucumber idea up a notch. I tend to deseed my cucumbers by splitting them lengthwise then scooping the seeds out by dragging a spoon from top to bottom. (See final photo.)* Peel or don’t peel. I don’t.
Serves 2-3 as a side salad. I’d double it if I were you.
1 large English cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, seeded, then sliced into thin (but not paper thin—you want crunch) half moons
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon lemon juice (you can add more after you mix the dressing if you want it)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon finely diced red onion or shallot
1 very small clove garlic, grated on a microplane or crushed
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons chopped dill (you can use a bit more but be careful)
Place the sliced cucumbers in a serving bowl in a reasonably attractive heap.
Make a dressing by whisking together the remaining ingredients, except for the dill; taste and adjust seasoning.
Top the cucumbers prettily with a big spoonful of the dressing (you won’t use it all; you don’t want to drown it) and some of the dill. Bring to the table and toss. Adjust seasonings, sprinkle remaining dill on top, and serve.
*One last thing, in case you didn’t understand my method for seeding cucumbers:
That’s it for this week. Next week will be a surprise (including to me). After all, who can say what fate awaits us all in this insane, mixed up, bizarre (and also quite pretty) world. But as I always like to say (or as I am going to start saying): At least we have salad! Thank you for subscribing. And please make all your deserving friends subscribe, too.