On our last night in Thailand, we crashed at a hotel a few minutes from the airport. Not one to allow my final Thai meal to be a tasteless hotel pizza, I convinced Alex to venture back out to the Bangkok streets, ignoring that our flight out left in a couple of hours. I was sure I’d seen, and smelled, a stall serving something good and cheap on our winding taxi ride over.
We pointed to the larb-like substance that the vendor was frying up for the customer ahead of us. Two, we motioned. And rice.
We sat at picnic tables lit with florescent bulbs, waiting for the food. Mosquitoes ate our legs. The dogs at the table next to us barked viciously. We felt like interlopers. Two weeks in country hadn’t made us any more comfortable ordering food whose names we couldn’t decipher, and though when our larb was ready, we tried to embrace the adventure of eating it, we failed at that too. Thai food is as much about blood sausage and tripe as it is about the sugar-lime contrast of Pad Thai noodles or the chili-lemongrass spice of a bowl of curry (follow Andy Ricker of Pok Pok on Instagram if you want to really have this hammered in). And our larb had a whole lot of tripe…or something. Those 14 days of traveling proved not enough time to learn to enjoy a plate of mysterious Thai street meat either (the flavor was good, admittedly, and we spooned some of the sauce over our rice and ate that to preserve some dignity). We walked back to the hotel, scratching our mosquito bites, and we asked for pizzas in the hotel lobby.
Of course, we had eaten a lot of great food on the trip, much of it adventurous. As a bookend to the larb-stand disaster, on our first night in Bangkok, we had the most incredible meal. After a blurry day spent pointing at potentially tasty market delicacies (some good, some odd), we fought jet lag and went out for dinner to a place Rivka had recommended, called Soul Food. We ordered as per Rivka’s rec too, a plate of yam som-o, pomelo salad. I wondered if, after the markets, we’d find the food at this restaurant, with its English menu, authentic enough. Naturally, the meal was one of the most delicious ones we ate.
After that first bite of yam som-o, I sought the dish on menus everywhere. If it wasn’t listed, we ordered som tam, papaya salad with a similar set of flavors, instead. And in fact there were lots of salads and dishes that showed off the puckery, hot, and sweet combination of flavors as yam som-o and som tam, a likeable trio that followed us back to our kitchen and appears with a good bit of frequency, especially when I have quantities of extra vegetables lying around.
To translate the som tam flavors to a vegetable like broccoli, I quickly steam the florets and stems, then bruise them a bit as I mash them together with the dressing: fish sauce, garlic, Thai chilies, a heaping spoonful of sugar, and plenty of peanuts. Herbs, like basil and mint, are welcome. Though this looks like a salad, I really love matching the dish with rice for a healthful lunch or dinner that’s light, fresh, and pretty balanced. Though imported from our travels, we’re totally in our element when we eat it.
Som Tam-Style Broccoli
Serves 2 as main with rice, many more as a side
Try roasting slices of eggplant, then dressing them in the same style. If you like spice, start with 2 Thai chilies–that’ll give you pretty good heat. If you LOVE spice, then keep on increasing! Eat warm, at room temperature, or cold.
2 small heads broccoli, with stems (2 cups)
2 cloves garlic
1-4 small thai chili, depending on your feelings towards spice, sliced
about 2 tablespoons sugar
about 3 tablespoon fish sauce
about 3 tablespoons lime juice
1/3 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
Small handful basil leaves, torn (optional)
Small handful mint leaves, torn (optional)
Cut off the very bottoms of the broccoli stems and discard them. Cut off the remaining stems and peel the outsides, reserving any leaves. Cut into bite-sized pieces. Cut or break the broccoli florets into bite-sized pieces too. Set a small amount of water to boil at the bottom of a steamer. Place the broccoli leaves, then stems in the steamer basket. Cover and stem for two minutes. Add the florets and steam another 3 minutes, until the color turns bright green. Remove from the heat and set aide
Meanwhile, mnce the garlic, then sprinkle on some salt, mince again, and then press with the side of your knife to turn into a paste. Place in a large bowl (large enough to hold all the broccoli), and add the sliced chilies (start with 1 if you’re worried about overdoing it), sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. Add the broccoli and toss to combine. Use a potato masher to bruise the broccoli a bit, so it’ll absorb more dressing. Add the peanuts and herbs and toss again. Taste for balance of flavors, adding more sugar, fish sauce, chilies, or lime juice if you’d like.