Asian Salads

Asian Salads

Asian salads are a far cry from the green salads on Western menus. They may be more like a relish or salsa, piquant and used as an accent; or they can be an entire meal, combining raw and lightly cooked vegetables, fried bean curd, slivers of cooked meats and a dressing or sauce which ties the ingredients together, as in Indonesia's gado-gado with its celebrated peanut sauce; or urap, steamed vegetables dressed with fresh grated coconut, dried shrimp paste and lemon juice.

In all of the Pacific countries, there is a raw fish salad by one name or another, the fish marinated in lime juice until it turns white and opaque, then dressed with fresh coconut milk and raw onions. China has its cold platters with thinly sliced cooked meats, but these are banquet platters, not usually part of an everyday menu.

Korean cuisine includes namul and saingchai, two categories of dishes which can be said to resemble salads since they combine fruits and vegetables, which are sometimes raw, and use a dressing of crushed toasted sesame seeds, soy, vinegar, sesame oil, pepper, sugar, salt and sometimes chili and garlic.

Japan offers aemono and sunomono with cold sauces which could be described as salad-type dishes. They are served in tiny portions as an appetizer before the meal. They may include fish or shellfish, seaweed, sliced or shredded raw vegetables, or lightly steamed vegetables. Dressings are made from mild rice vinegar, crushed sesame seeds, tofu or a thick, oil-free dressing which looks like mayonnaise. The portions are never the serving size of a Western salad.

In Malaysia a traditional dish which might fit the description of a rice salad is simply steamed rice mixed with many different kinds of finely shredded fragrant herbs including such exotics as leaves of aromatic ginger, turmeric, kaffir lime, basil, Vietnamese mint, stem of lemon grass, bulb of shallot, and bud of torch ginger. This is usually served with a relish and dry curry.

It is in Thai cuisine that salads (yam) are given most prominence, combining fruits both ripe and unripe, vegetables, seafood, meat, leaves and flowers - lotus and rose petals, no less. The dressing will always be piquant with lime, hot with chili, and salty with fish sauce.

Raw, tender leaf-tips gathered from hedges and trees by those who know their species, are an important part of the meal, and are a vital source of vitamins and minerals in Asian diets. They may be tossed with flavored oil, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, fish sauce and a good squeeze of lime juice. Or they may be dipped into a pungent sauce such as the various nam priks of Thailand.

Indian salads may include small portions of fresh tomatoes, onions and chilies, seasoned with salt and lime juice, and used as a fresh relish. Yogurt 'salad' known as raitas can include fried lentil drops, diced boiled potato and beetroot, sprouted mung beans, sliced ripe banana, cooked spinach or okra, fried eggplant (aubergine), sliced or diced raw cucumber or a mixture of any vegetables in season. The yogurt itself is the dressing, seasoned with fried mustard seeds, crushed toasted cumin seeds, salt, sugar, chili powder and garam masala.

Salads in Asia may be called rojak or yam or mallun or ahthoke depending on which country you are in. One thing they have in common is that they are fresh-tasting, perhaps a little more fiery than one expects of a dish in the category of salad, and feature unexpected combinations of ingredients.

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