Thai beef salad, or yam neua, is a tangle of thinly sliced grilled steak, tossed with shallots, a heap of cilantro and mint, and a hot, sour, salty and slightly sweet dressing—and possibly sliced cucumbers and chopped tomatoes. It’s a salad where the meat comes first and vegetables are secondary. And unlike so many Thai dishes, it’s not meant to be served with rice.
“Yam” refers to a style of spicy, slightly sour salads from central Thailand, where 17th-century trade routes converged around the then- prosperous city Ayutthaya, about 50 miles north of modern-day Bangkok. The influx of traders introduced now-essential ingredients to Thai cooking: chilies and tomatoes (from the New World), shallots (from the Middle East) and, some argue, even fish sauce (an ancient Roman flavoring agent).
The culinary mashup in the region gave rise to yam’s distinctive dressing, made from a blend of lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, shallots and fresh chilies. There are countless variants of yam—with eggs, seafood, noodles, even fruit (think mango salad)—but they’re all unified by this robust dressing.
For our version of yam neua (pronounced yum n-UH), we started by choosing the right steak. Some recipes called for flank, sirloin tips, even tenderloin, but ultimately we chose skirt steak. The thin, well-marbled cut—so frequently folded into tacos or buried in fajitas—has exceptionally beefy flavor that can stand up to the bold yam dressing.
To season the meat, we used white pepper instead of black. Cooks in Thailand actually use more white pepper (prik thai) than black. The variety of white pepper found in Thailand is slightly different than what’s available in the U.S. It has a sharper, more floral aroma and flavor. Even so, basic white pepper fit the bill here.
To that we added salt and a couple teaspoons of brown sugar, to approximate the faint maple flavor in palm sugar. Rubbed into the meat, the spice mixture gave the skirt steak a flavorful crust when grilled.
Skirt steak gets tough if overcooked, so cooking it briefly—no more than medium-rare—but enough to develop a char proved tricky. The key was heating the grill (or cast-iron pan) over a high, even flame for a full five minutes before grilling or searing the meat. Cutting the steak against the grain was also important; it shortens the muscle fibers, which makes the meat tender.
For the yam’s characteristic dressing, we started with a tablespoon of fish sauce, then added more to taste, as fish sauce brands vary in potency and quality (we like Red Boat). Shallots are standard, but we wanted to soften their bite, so we let them mellow in the lime juice while we cooked the steak. A teaspoon of red pepper flakes gave us enough heat to match the savory-sour flavors, and we used a little more brown sugar to add depth.
We decided against cucumbers, which didn’t absorb the dressing well unless salted and drained first. But halves of cherry tomatoes were simple to add and complemented the salad’s sweet-tart taste.
We finished our yam neua with traditional fresh herbs—cilantro and mint—the only greens you’ll find in this salad.