Small, Good Things: Salad Days (Are Here Again)

by Joe Dizney

There’s a lot to be said for salads beyond merely getting your leafy vegetable quota, particularly given these in-between days before the edible promises of the season are delivered to local greenmarkets and CSAs: the tomatoes, basil and other sweet produce that make al fresco cooking and dining the joy — maybe even the point — of this temperate season. We long for crisp, young, bright flavors that refresh and don’t weigh a body down.

The word salad, as we have come to know this mélange of edible vegetal bits of this and that, derives from the Latin word salata (salty) and refers primarily to the traditional “dressing” of the dish — originally brine, later oil and vinegar — the function of which was primarily to distract the diner from ingredients either not quite in season or past their prime. (Again, think tomatoes at any other time but high summer. This is also a reason we associate salads with greens, as there is usually some vegetable available and reasonably fresh to act as the transport device or “ground” for the salad proper — remember those numerous kale salads of the winter past.)

And although every culture and cuisine has its own take on the salad, there are those that have truly made an art form of the dish.

As an aside, there has been recently much scholarly study and ink devoted to the fundamental differences between Western (i.e., North American and Western European) foodways and flavor profiles and preferences that tend toward “sweet and creamy” (cane sugar, dairy, vanilla) and East Asian tastes that lean toward soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, ginger, garlic and cayenne, or, more broadly — “spicy.” (A big takeaway from the studies is the tendency to favor distinct and varied flavors in a single recipe, not to mention the what-should-be-obvious avoidance of animal/dairy products.)

But in addition to cultural factors, there are environmental and microbiological influences at work here: The heavy spicing, salting, pickling and fermenting, in addition to preserving foods and retarding spoilage, actually provide natural antibacterial and antibiotic protection in warmer climates.

Burma, or properly Myanmar, sits geographically between India, China, Laos and Thailand and consequently is a rich repository and epicenter of the broader culinary traditions and taste preferences of the Asian continent.

Burmese cuisine includes a varied tradition of salads — called thohks or thokes — centered around one main ingredient ranging from rice, wheat or noodles, accented or garnished with pulses, peas and beans, potatoes, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, mango, onions, garlic, ginger or (famously) lahpet (pickled tea leaves). The “dressings” invariably consist of fish sauce (salty) and lime juice and/or vinegar (acid).

These thohks are common and ubiquitous, consumed from morning to night as side dishes, main dishes, palate cleansers, snacks and street food, even desserts.

Gyin Thohk (photo by J. Dizney)

Gyin Thohk (photo by J. Dizney)

And none is more ubiquitous than the gyin thohk (gin thoke), or ginger salad. I’ve been chasing this recipe since experiencing a sublime version at Mandalay, a Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland. There are many “authentic” versions available online, but they all evince a bit of the “kitchen sink” school of ethnic cuisine: too many ingredients (dried shrimp, shredded carrots, diced tomatoes) that would detract from what I found memorable about a memorable first bite — an overwhelmingly pleasant blast of lightly pickled fresh ginger against the bright crispness of cabbage, the nutty crunch and earthiness of toasted peanuts and sesame seeds, fried garlic and just enough hot pepper, all barely bound together by a salty-tart-sweet dressing.

Again, other possibly more “authentic” main-course recipes (readily available online) call for proteins and exotics like soaked and toasted lentils and chickpeas, dried shrimp or toasted split-pea flour (besan). The reductive recipe presented here makes an accommodating side dish for and flavorful counterpoint to simple grilled chicken, seafood, quickly sautéed scallops — or slow-braised, five-spice pork belly(!). The only imaginary addition I keep coming back to would be some shredded, sliced or cubed mango (or papaya, cantaloupe or watermelon) to further accentuate the sweetness.

Standard white cabbage is a more-than-acceptable substitute for the specified and intentionally neutral napa; cilantro — the love-it-or-hate-it herb — is yours to in- or exclude.

Gyin Thohk (Burmese Ginger Salad)

Serves 4

For the dressing/ginger marinade:

2 green chilies (jalapeños will do), seeded and minced fine

3 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons raw sugar (mirin would be a righteously good substitute)

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

For the salad:

2/3 to 1 cup fresh ginger cut in a fine julienne

4 to 5 cloves garlic, sliced thin, fried golden and drained*

½ cup peanuts, toasted and chopped roughly

¼ cup sesame seeds, toasted

2 cups napa cabbage, cut into a fine chiffonade

¼ to ½ cup scallions (green part only), minced

¼ to ½ cup torn cilantro leaves

Lime wedges

Whisk together the dressing ingredients and marinate the ginger in it while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (This may sit up to 8 hours or overnight.)

When the remaining ingredients are ready to assemble, drain the ginger, reserving the dressing/marinade.

Toss the cabbage, drained ginger, and about half each of the scallions, cilantro and toasted and browned nuts, seeds and fried garlic in a large non-reactive bowl. (It is easiest and best to use your hands to do this.) Add enough reserved dressing to moisten and toss lightly. (If possible, allow it all to rest in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes.)

To serve, freshen the slaw with an additional splash of fish sauce, toss again and garnish individual servings with the reserved ingredients and lime wedges.

*Note: I hate frying — especially in the summer — and suggest this alternative: Put the thin slices of garlic in a microwave-safe ramekin or small bowl and barely cover them with peanut oil. Process in the microwave on high for 30-second intervals, checking and stirring after each session, and remembering that they will continue to cook once removed from the oil. (Mine took about 1 ½ minutes total, but this will vary depending on the equipment.) When the slices are just barely golden and fragrant, remove with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate and drain and cool. (Save the garlic oil for another use.) Additionally, you can also toast your peanuts and sesame seeds in a similar manner — just barely moisten/coat them with oil and proceed as above.

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