Laab and Som Tum

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Cassoulets may be good for the winter, but no one wants a piping hot dish in the summer unless it’s fresh off a grill. Enter the ever-refreshing, oft-overlooked salad. If you’re already sick and tired of the myriad variations of mixed green, caprese, or fruit salads, try your greens in a new way. Som tum, a Thai papaya salad, plays host to a variety of textures ranging from crunchy to chewy — the tangy zip of lime juice and salt of fish sauce highlight the slight sweetness of green papaya. Laab esan, a ground beef salad, features fresh mint, toasted rice powder, green onions, and the salty-tang of the fish sauce / lime flavor combo. Wrap it up with some sticky rice in a lettuce leaf and you’ve got the ultimate in refreshing summer food. We tested these dishes from four Thai restaurants across the Twin Cities to produce the tasting notes which follow. If you prefer to experience food in your own kitchen, try the recipes below.

Among the multitude of Thai eateries in the area, we selected locations including Sen Yai Sen Lek in northeast Minneapolis, Ruam Mit Thai in downtown St. Paul, True Thai in Seward, and Pad Thai on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Each restaurant offered its own spin on the dishes, but among them we sought a light, balanced option which didn’t overly stress a salty, tangy, or sweet note over all others. The som tum had a lower variance across the board, while laab from one restaurant tasted quite different from the next.

SOM TUM

Pad Thai’s version featured big chunks of tomato and a middle-of-the-road flavor — not very strongly flavored in any which way. At $4.95 per serving, this was the most economical of those we sampled. Sen Yai Sen Lek’s was, on one visit, the sweetest of the four due to an ever-so-slightly riper papaya — jazzed up with a bit of nam pla prik, or spicy fish sauce, the dish worked quite well. The shredded dried shrimp on top provided a welcome, slightly fishy dimension. True Thai’s version added a bit of shredded carrot to the papaya-tomato-green bean base, which made for extra crunch and sweetness. Ruam Mit Thai, meanwhile, serves their version with small dried shrimp atop the bed of papaya. A thin-sliced, slightly sweet-and-spicy beef jerky served on the side adds a chewy texture to the mix and a bit more substance to those afraid of going vegetarian.

LAAB ESAN

In terms of flavor, these salads were a bit more varied. The version from True Thai, the only one comprised of finely chopped, thinly sliced beef (as opposed to ground beef) featured a tangy, well-balanced flavor and was the best-tasting after a night in the fridge, due to its chewy texture. Ruam Mit’s version, the best-seasoned of the bunch, was an ideal balance of salty-tangy-spicy, tempered by the traditional sticky rice, cucumber, and lettuce leaves. On a recent visit, Pad Thai’s rendition prominently featured off-puttingly sweet sautéed red onions, while on another occasion we were served an overly peppery version of the salad. Sen Yai Sen Lek’s laab gai (the restaurant serves only chicken laab, pictured below) brought the zing of sliced lemongrass to the forefront, with the nuttiness of the toasted rice powder to temper the flavor.

With all these options, which should you choose? Ruam Mit Thai, if you can handle well-meaning yet poor service, has top-notch food — the tang, spice, and salt featured so prominently in Thai food are perfectly balanced. Sen Yai Sen Lek, with equally well-made food from the Isaan region of Thailand, works with local farms to provide local, sustainably grown veggies and meats. Pad Thai provides a fancier atmosphere and cheap fill for Grand Avenue college kids and employees, while True Thai offers education on Thai food and culture. If you prefer to experience your food in your own home, the following recipes are at your disposal.

Kate Sommers / Heavy Table

Som Tum
Original recipe from Chalong (Lek) Carlson

2 tbsp chopped fresh garlic
½ tsp crushed red pepper
1 c fresh green beans, cut in 1-1½ inch pieces
1 large green (underripe) papaya, grated*
2 large tomatoes (or 4 roma tomatoes), diced
1½ limes, juiced
1 tbsp shrimp paste (available at an Asian market)
¼ c fish sauce

1.     Mash the garlic and red pepper together with a mortar and pestle.
2.     Add the green beans to the garlic and pepper and pound them until slightly crushed.
3.     Add papaya, tomatoes, lime, shrimp paste, and fish sauce.
4.     Stir and season to taste, then serve!

Laab Esan
Original recipe from Chalong (Lek) Carlson

1 lb ground beef or bison
¾ lime, juiced (+ extra splash to taste)
⅛ c fish sauce
1-2 tsp crushed red pepper
2 heaping tsp toasted rice powder**
3 green onions, finely sliced
1 10-12 inch sprig of mint, chopped
1 small handful cilantro (about 10 sprigs)
Steamed sticky rice
Cucumber, sliced
Lettuce leaves (romaine, cabbage, or whatever you prefer)

1.     Saute meat over medium heat (no oil) until lightly browned.
2.     Transfer the meat to a bowl and add lime, fish sauce, red pepper, and rice powder.
3.     Stir and season to taste.
4.     After seasoning, add green onions, mint, and cilantro.
5.     Serve with sticky rice and cucumber slices (or roasted bitter melon), wrapped in lettuce leaves.

*Ideally, use a handheld grater on a handle (looks similar to a cheese slicer) to grate the papaya — these are available at Asian grocery stores.

**Toasted rice powder can be bought at an Asian grocery store, or you can make your own by toasting dry jasmine rice in a pan over medium heat and grinding it with a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.

Pad Thai Restaurant
1681 Grand Ave
St Paul, MN 55105-1805
651.690.1393

Papaya Salad: $4.95 / Laab: $5.95

Ruam Mit Thai
475 St Peter St
St Paul, MN 55102-1110
651.222.7871

Papaya Salad: $10.50 / Laab Nua: $10.95

Sen Yai Sen Lek
2422 Central Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
612.781.3046

Som Tum $7.95 / Laab Gai: $9.95

True Thai
2627 E Franklin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55406-1167
612.375.9942

Green Papaya Salad: $6.50 / Laab: $9.95

For ingredients, mortar and pestle, and grater:

Shuang Hur
654 University Ave W
St Paul, MN 55104
651.292.1325

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Maja Ingeman

The daughter of an artist and a music teacher, Maja spent much of her childhood traveling the country in a rusty old van, attempting to model all of her father’s salable jewelry at the same time, and sampling the many edibles available both on the road and at the art fairs they visited. Though she now lives in Minneapolis, the coffee addiction and love for food that she picked up en route to one of their many destinations never left her. Between marketing work in the medical device industry and poring over the Harvard Business Review, she can typically be found holed up in her kitchen, baking bread every weekend and experimenting in between.

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3 Comments

  1. David Foureyes06/18/2010Reply

    Good round-up, but not having BTD featured is unfortunate. Certainly my favorite take on laab (and just about everything else Thai) in the city. I’m sure anyone could complain their favorite isn’t mentioned…

    I also like Chai’s rendition of Som Tum only because you can (or could) order it with the traditional pickled crab.

  2. Hazel Stone06/18/2010Reply

    In Northern Thailand, they will take the tiny crabs that live in the rice paddies and crush them into the som tam. The som tam I ate in Chiang Mai is the hottest food I have ever eaten. My host family would eat it, bought at the market, with sticky rice and sweet, sweet iced coffee on the patio in the late afternoon shade. The ladies in the market had HUGE wooden mortar and pestle and would make it for you on the spot, slamming down the wooden pestle to smash the crabs in their shells.

  3. No sweet? I have always added palm sugar to my Som Tum

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