I feel like I've been openly lamenting the state of Thai food in the Triangle region of North Carolina a lot recently. I feel a little bad about that, but it's hard for me not to think about it when I'm left unsatisfied too often by not being able to get one of my favorite cuisines in a way that tastes true to its origins. This has led me to learn how to cook a lot more Thai food at home—and it's really not hard, it's mostly just a matter of procuring the correct ingredients—but I'm not always in the mood for cooking, so I still find myself eating out at Thai joint somewhat regularly. Despite my complaining, there have been a few bright spots I've come to rely on at the restaurants around here, one of those being nam tok, otherwise known as beef waterfall salad. This grilled beef salad is simple and doesn't require as many special ingredients as some other dishes, which may be one reason why its has faired better at restaurants, although homemade has still been best!
I've been relying on the internet to guide me to really great Thai recipes, but I finally decided to get the Pok Pok cookbook recently, which takes everything just a ltitle further in the name of authenticity. So I've found myself not just buying basic Thai ingredients at the grocery, but making them from scratch at home, which has totally upped my game. One good example is this Thai toasted chili powder—phrik phon. To make it, I put a bag of puya chilies in a wok and slowly toasted them until they darkened a bit and were very fragrant.
I then turned the chilies into flakes using my spice grinder, utilizing the entire chili, minus the stem. Sure, store bought hot chili flakes will get you close in flavor, but this chili powder had an underlying toasty character on top of the strong heat to make it stand a step or two above your run-of-the-mill chili flakes.
I also made my own toasted rice powder, which is essential in a lot of Thai dishes. I had been making this at home before, but the Pok Pok book changed up my normal process by soaking and then drying the sweet rice prior to toasting it. I'm not totally sure the purpose of this, my hunch is this helped the rice toast more evenly from edge to edge, making sure that the entire batch of rice powder was as potent as possible.
Getting into Thai cooking has meant getting very familiar with my mortar and pestle. Times when I used to bust out the food processor, I now used my mortar and pestle for more flavorful and better textured pastes and sauces. This recipe had me crushing lemongrass and black pepper until it was broken down very well, then adding in some light soy sauce to make the seasoning for the steak.
And the steak of choice here is flank, but I think a lot of different cuts could work well too, like skirt or hanger. I rubbed the lemongrass seasoning all of my piece of flank before letting it sit in the fridge for a couple hours prior to grilling.
While the beef rested, I prepped the rest of the salad components, including the dressing. Like so many Thai dishes, fish sauce forms a super savory and salty backbone here with lime juice providing the bright acidity. The Pok Pok book says limes as we know them are not the same as what's used in Thailand, so to simulate their more sour flavor, a mixture of lime and lemon juice can be substituted, or use key limes, but those represent a significant cost bump, so I went with the former suggestion and it turned out great. Also in the dressing was beef stock, lemongrass, sugar, and the toasted chili powder. You can adjust the chili powder to your desired spice level—I used about a tablespoon, but then ended up wishing it was a tad spicier in the end.
On top of the beef, nam tok also consists of a lot of shallots—a mandoline makes quick work of slicing these—mint, and cilantro. These are things easy to pick up at any grocery, which makes this salad a pretty good gateway recipe to getting a traditional Thai flavor without the need for a specialty market or mail ordering anything.
Then next step was to get that beef grilled, so once I had a fresh batch of coals going, I brought that chunk of beef outside and got it going. Flank likes high heat, so an extra hot grill is a good thing here for getting a crusty sear while keeping the inside medium-rare. I personally go by feel and intuition at this point for flank and skirt steaks, but it's always best to test doneness with a thermometer, and you're looking for around 125°F for a nice medium-rare here. You can boost it up to 135°F if you like your steak a little more done, which I think this application can handle well, but going much north of that and you'll be left with drier, chewier, and lest flavorful meat.
After I let the steak rest for about ten minutes, I cut it into roughly 1/4-inch strips against the grain, and cut those strips into shorter pieces if they were exceedingly long. I was happy to see the steak was nice and rosy red on the inside, just that way I like it.
I then transferred all the steak into a large bowl, added in the shallots, mint, cilantro, rice powder, and dressing and tossed to distribute everything evenly. Next the entire salad went onto a serving platter, which I had lined with romaine leaves for presentation purposes, and I topped it off with some more toasted rice powder for some extra nutty crunchiness.
When I think of nam tok, this is exactly what I want. The beef was well seasoned on its own with a great light smokiness to it. Its heaviness was contrasted and cut through by the spicy and acidic dressing that also upped the savoriness of the dish, while the herbs did their magic adding the fresh touches and the shallots providing a sharp crunch. After tasting how this came out, I think I realized I've come to accept a bit more subdued version that I often get at restaurants around here that still tastes really good, but doesn't deliver the full range and depth of flavor that this did. My guests took notice too, with more than one inquiring about this dish and how to make it. I think that speaks a lot to the power of more authentic Thai cooking, which outputs some of the best food in the world, in my opinion.
- Yield 3-4 servings
- Prep 15 Minutes
- Inactive 30 Minutes
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 55 Minutes
- For the Dressing
- 3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons beef stock
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped lemongrass
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons Thai toasted chili powder (phrik phon), plus more to taste
- For the Steak
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped lemongrass
- 4-5 black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon Thai thin soy sauce
- 8oz flank steak, trimmed of excess fat and silverskin
- For the Salad
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
- 1/2 cup lightly packed small mint leaves
- 1/2 cup lightly packed roughly chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon toasted rice powder, plus more to garnish
- To make the dressing: Whisk together fish sauce, beef stock, lime juice, lemon juice, lemongrass, sugar, and chili powder in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat dressing until warm. Remove from heat and set aside.
- To make the steak: Place lemongrass and peppercorns in a mortar and pestle and work mixture until broken down into very small pieces. Add in soy sauce and stir until combined. Rub lemongrass mixture all over steak. Place steak in refrigerator for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Grill steak over high heat until deeply browned on both sides and an instant read thermometer registers 125°F when inserted into thickest part of the meat, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer steak to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes.
- Slice steak into 1/4-inch strips against the grain and cut those strips into 2-3-inch pieces if needed. Transfer steak to a large bowl. Add in shallots, mint, cilantro, rice powder, and dressing into bowl with steak and toss to evenly distribute. Transfer salad to a serving platter and top with more toasted rice powder. Serve immediately.
Adapted from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker.