This was one of those rare but profound culinary introductions. The kind that opens the mind as well as the palate. When you realize that you’ve been missing out your entire life, but — the good news — you can eat this for the rest of your days, now that you’re enlightened. (Probably how we’d all feel if we were old enough to remember our first taste of mac ’n’ cheese.) This is the day I first started to appreciate the magical umami wonders of fish sauce.
I remember where I was and when it happened. We were honeymooning in Hawaii and I found a casual little Thai restaurant with raving internet reviews. The reviewers said we should let the chef/owner order for us, so we did. We took a few appetizers and a couple of entrees as takeout and enjoyed the meal while sitting on a rocky beach watching waves and surfers.
The star of the meal was one of the appetizers, and honestly I can’t remember if it was larb or nam sod (similar dishes), but it doesn’t matter. There was minced meat, lettuce, fish sauce, and lime juice. This was the first time that I experienced this particular combo of winning flavors typical in Southeast Asian cuisine. All the elements play their part — the brightness from the lime, the crisp lettuce, and the umami meat and fish sauce — but the fish sauce is the real hotshot. It’s both distinct and subtle (and no, it does not taste like straight-up fish.) If you’re a fan of the peach salad currently on the menu at The Anchorage, the larb appetizer at the new Basil Thai Cuisine, or the papaya salad at Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant, then you know exactly what I mean by that.
The recipe here is for a salad reminiscent of that honeymoon appetizer, but made more substantial for an entrée-sized salad. Although Thai basil is ideal, your salad will still taste great with any variety of basil from your summer garden.
That Honeymoon Salad, Sort Of
2 tbsp. coconut or vegetable oil
1 cup minced shallots
1 cup sliced red bell pepper
2 tbsp. minced fresh garlic
1.5 pound ground chicken, turkey, or pork
1 small serrano or jalapeño chile
2 tbsp. fish sauce
4 tsp. brown sugar
4 tsp. low-sodium soy sauce
1 cup basil leaves (Thai basil or purple basil is preferred, if available)
2/3 cup short-grain brown rice (dry)
1 clamshell mixed salad greens (around 6 cups of greens)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add rice and set timer for 30 minutes. Drain rice when done and set aside. (Note: This method only works for brown rice, not white!)
Sauté shallots in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat for about two minutes. Add bell pepper; sauté two minutes more. Add garlic and chile; sauté 30 seconds. Remove shallot mixture from pan and set aside.
Add remaining tablespoon of oil to pan and cook ground meat until browned, crumbling with a spatula as it cooks. Drain well.
In a small bowl, whisk together fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce, and juice of one lime.
Return meat to pan over low-medium heat and add shallot mixture and cooked rice, stirring to combine. Stir in fish sauce mixture; cook one minute and continue to stir and incorporate sauce into the meat/veggie/rice mixture.
Remove pan from heat. Stir in basil. Taste for salt – it may not need any after the soy sauce and fish sauce. Add salt if necessary.
In a large bowl, toss salad greens with the juice of half a lime and a pinch of salt.
Plate by layering greens, then meat mixture, then chopped avocado. Serve with lime wedges and add more lime juice to taste.
Emily Yepes is an account manager at Community Journals and a fitness instructor. She is “just” a home cook whose favorite hobby is to test and perfect recipes for her annual family cookbook.