Pursuit of the perfect grilled beef salad became a courtship dance for food writer T. Susan Chang. Love and a delicious yam neua resulted. She explains the flavors of Thai cookery and shares a recipe.
My husband Randy and I each discovered yam neua long before we met. Randy found his in Chicago at the end of a three-hour drive, surrounded by carousing friends. I found mine on foot, seeking shelter from Manhattan's hot pavement behind an inviting bamboo-clad facade. In each of us was ignited the desire to have yam neua -- the delightfully savory and sweet flavors of Thai grilled beef salad -- to have it again and again, in far-flung cities, at aberrant times of day.
Years later, when Randy and I discovered our shared past with yam neua, we were at that stage of infatuation where one sweet revelation passes only to reveal the next, like petals in a rose. Another amazing coincidence! That each of us had traveled the twisted paths of life, unknowingly worshiping at the same shrines along the way.
But every union has its fractures, and as it turned out, yam neua had tremendous fissile potential.
I might have known. There are as many yam neuas, it is said, as there are Thai cooks. Still, there are rules:
The beef is always grilled. The five flavors of Thai cooking must be present and accounted for: sweetened with sugar, sour from lime juice, salty from fish sauce, bitter from the charring of the beef, and hot from green chilies.
Meeting these requirements was not so simple in our cramped, grill-less quarters. Our apartment was shaped like a dumbbell; its narrow handle was a kitchen so small that if we needed to pass each other, one of us had to back into the bedroom. So confined was the space that a person bending to retrieve a blazing pan from the broiler would make posterior contact with the opposite wall. We were forever forgetting the cilantro, obliging one cook to trek sullenly down five flights of stairs to get it while the other sweated over the fuming stove.
Yam neua is not hard to make. But in our zeal, we enlisted the entire Armed Forces of the kitchen: colanders, measuring cups, two chopping boards, chef's knife, paring knife, a juicer, a small whisk, separate bowls for the meat, the herbs and the dressing, a mortar and pestle. Conditions would rapidly devolve into a war for counter space.
In the hot pursuit of yam neua, it is easy to make the mistake of wiping the sweat out of your eyes with a hot-chili-laced fingertip, and you must wield a very sharp knife to slice the grilled beef. Mere flickers of agitation could prove incendiary. Was there really room for all three of us -- Randy, me and yam neua?
We experimented with imported palm sugar. We debated lime-fish sauce ratios. We acted as if it mattered whether we used nam pla (Thai) or nuoc mam (Vietnamese). From time to time I wondered if our yam-neuroticism was making us unfit for human society -- though we both secretly knew we would have it no other way.
In retrospect, the fuss we made over yam neua's authenticity seems like so much semaphore, as if we were wildly signaling to each other some urgent message we lacked the words to convey.
Today, yam neua is a welcome and well-behaved visitor in our house. We have a charcoal grill to prepare the beef, and the forgotten cilantro can be found in our own garden. Though esoterica will never forsake our kitchen -- we're currently experimenting with toasted sticky rice powder as a garnish -- I have come to accept that yam neua is in the eye of the beholder.
Some things, I have learned, remain treasures even if you never unlock every last one of their secrets. Today, I hold dear what is unfamiliar about Randy in direct proportion to how familiar he has become. After all, what you know and what you don't know can fill the volume of life -- or your dinner plate -- without mattering any more than it did before.
There are as many yam neuas as there are cooks -- and now there are two more.
Yam Neua (Grilled Beef Salad)
Serves 4 with rice.
1 pound sirloin tips
3 tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely ground
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam)
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 to 1 green Thai bird chili (or other small, hot, green pepper), thinly sliced crosswise into rings
2 cucumbers, thinly sliced
4 or 5 shallots, thinly sliced crosswise into rings
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro, chopped
1 cup loosely packed mint, chopped
1. Preheat the grill or light the charcoals. While the coals are heating, place the ground peppercorns in a wide platter and roll the sirloin tips in the pepper until thoroughly coated. When the coals are blazing hot, cook the sirloin tips on the grill until seared and browned, about 3 to 5 minutes a side. The meat will still be rare or medium-rare inside. Set aside to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until thoroughly cooled, about 2 to 3 hours.
2. Mix the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and sliced chili thoroughly in a small bowl (or agitate vigorously in a small glass jar).
3. Slice the cooled beef across the grain as thinly as possible. Toss the sliced beef with the cucumbers, shallots, cilantro and mint in a large bowl. Add the fish sauce mixture and toss again. Serve at room temperature or chilled.