Fresh, tangy and vibrant: all the things you’d typically say about a Thai salad or a Vietnamese salad. But what is the difference between the two, especially when a lot of their ingredients are similar? And which one’s better? Spoiler: It’s all about the make-or-break dressing. I made two famous salads from each region to help explain where they’re similar, where they’re not and which comes out on top.
In collaboration with Fever-Tree.
First up, a Vietnamese chicken salad. The thing to nail from the get go with this one is that chicken and, more specifically, the poached chicken. It needs to be juicy and tender and delicious, with not a hint of dryness, which is why poaching is an ideal method, as it helps the meat retain as much moisture as possible.
My tried-and-tested technique? Pop your chicken breasts into boiling water and gently simmer for 10 minutes, before turning the heat off and leaving them to sit in the hot water for a further five minutes. Once the time has passed, transfer the chicken breasts to a bowl and pop it in the fridge to cool down so that you can shred the meat without burning off your fingers.
Add the shredded chicken to a bowl along with some green cabbage, carrot, onion and chilli, then the dressing. Components? Sugar, white vinegar and – here’s the important part – Vietnamese fish sauce. It’s a lot more rounded in flavour than a Thai version, so complements the other ingredients perfectly. GIve everything all a good toss, then add fresh mint and Vietnamese mint, plus some crispy shallot, then voila. You’re all set.
Regardless of if you’re making a Thai vs Vietnamese salad, the first step remains the same, and that’s to nail the protein you’re working with. In this case, it’s a juicy piece of steak. And, while it’s not exactly a traditional part of the process for a Thai beef salad (my mum definitely skips this part!), I like to marinate mine before cooking to create as much umami as possible. I’ll prepare a marinade of Thai fish sauce, shaved palm sugar and some ground black pepper, then pop my steaks in there to do their thing for 10 minutes.
For a Thai salad dressing, it’s got much more impact compared to the Vietnamese salad. I like to use a combination of Thai fish sauce (much bolder in flavour), shaved palm sugar, lots of lime juice and a good heap of chilli powder. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s got impact. But altogether, it’s the perfect blend of salty, sweet, sour and spicy, which is the essence of Thai food.
In summary, Thai flavours and Vietnamese flavours may use similar ingredients, but they have different results. Firstly, the region’s fish sauce makes a big difference. Thai brands of fish sauce tend to be more astringently salty, and I feel that sums up Thai flavours a lot for me: they’re bold, they’re bright… they kind of assault your senses in the best possible way.
Vietnamese fish sauce, much like the cuisine’s flavours overall, still packs a punch, but in a more rounded and subtle way. The fish sauce is a softer, more mellow, and complements the sweeter, tangier essence of the region’s food.
Side by side, both these salads are epic in their own right. The Thai salad is very spicy, very tangy and very bold – all the things I love. As for the Vietnamese salad, it’s sweet, tangy and so fresh with all those herbs. The crunchy peanuts and shallots add an extra level of savouriness and each mouthful offers a different experience.
As for you? You’ll have to make them both and let me know which you prefer. Enjoy!