Describing this salad in words transforms flavors and texture into language; thus, if you’re not familiar with salad flavor re-layering terms, you can quickly review them here, as this is the foundation for the technique described here.
A pla (พล่า) style salad of smoked grilled duck with roasted caramelized shallots, bitter yellow eggplants, and aromatics. The duck is smoke-grilled to medium-well doneness. Red, gamey and fatty, it is still pink inside and, along with the caramelized shallots, provides the salad with umami, fat, and distinctive smoky overtones.
We perceive bitterness and sweetness via the activation of the same G-protein coupled receptors in our mouths, thus bitterness in small quantities can enhance the inherent sweetness of meats. In this salad, the duck meat is paired with bitter yellow eggplants, which makes the duck taste even sweeter but still lightly gamey – an especially elegant match for the caramelized sweetness of the roasted shallots.
Next, thinly sliced lemongrass and hair-thin julienned kaffir lime leaves, commonly used in pla dishes, are mixed in to further deodorize the duck. Thai basil is the dominant herb and, along with coriander leaves, instills a fresh fragrance that is sweet and slightly spicy with licorice notes.
The salad dressing is built on coriander roots and hairy-fruited eggplant, pounded together and strained out after being mixed with a basic white salad dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and white sugar. A small juicy sour-sweet tomato is a fine substitute for the hairy-fruited eggplant, which is seasonal and, even in Thailand, difficult to find.
The dressing is clearly designed to match the salad: the deployment of the unmasking white sugar makes way for the aroma of the deodorizing herbs to come through, and its sweetness closes the flavor polygon with the enhanced sweetness of the duck, shallots and Thai basil. Lime juice completes the citrus triangle with the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
The smoking mix used to prepare the duck is made of jasmine rice as the main smoke body, coriander seeds that incorporate the coriander element of the salad (roots and leaves) into the smoke and, last, unrefined cane sugar that produces a beautiful brown color on the duck and adds a burned sugar bitterness to the smoke that further accentuates the sweetness of the meat.
For the duck
- 1 piece duck breast (อกเป็ด)
- 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
For the salad
- 1 tablespoon bitter yellow eggplants (มะเขือขื่น) The outer layer is thinly sliced and soaked in water to remove any extra bitterness.
- 1/2 cup shallots (หอมแดง) char roasted
- 1 tablespoon kaffir lime leaves (ใบมะกรูด) sliced into hair-thin juliennes
- 1 tablespoon lemongrass (ตะไคร้) thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon coriander leaves (ใบผักชี) soaked in water to freshen up
- 2 tablespoon Thai basil (ใบโหระพา)
- 1 part lime juice (น้ำมะนาว)
- 1 part fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1/2 part granulated sugar (น้ำตาลทราย)
- 2 pieces coriander roots (รากผักชี) scraped, washed and chopped
- 1 piece hairy-fruited eggplant (มะอึก)
- 1 piece Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม)
- 1/3 cup uncooked jasmine rice (ข้าวหอมมะลิ)
- 1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds (malet phak chee) (เมล็ดผักชี)
- 1 tablespoon raw cane sugar (น้ำอ้อย)
Prepare the duck.
- Rub the duck breast with fish sauce.
- Prepare the smoking mix – uncooked jasmine rice grains for the smoke body, unrefined cane sugar, and coriander seeds – and place them in a container made from aluminum foil.
- Ideally, use a charcoal hot smoker, light up the charcoals, and wait until the flames subside. Then wait until the charcoal is properly heated up before starting the smoking process.
- Place the smoking mix directly over the charcoals and hang the duck breast in the smoker.
- Check the duck often, at least every five minutes, to make sure it is not overcooked. In my setup, 15-20 minutes is usually sufficient.
- Once the duck breast is cooked, let it rest while you prepare the rest of the salad’s ingredients.
Prepare the salad ingredients.
- Roast the shallots peeled either over charcoal or in a pan until the peels are charred and the shallots are soft.
- Let the shallots cool, then peel and cut them into elongated slices along their growth axis (lengthwise).
- Bruise and thinly slice the lemongrass.
- Cut the kaffir lime leaves into hair-thin juliennes. Set aside in separate bowls, sealed with kitchen cling wrap to prevent drying.
- Cut the outer layer of the bitter yellow eggplant into thin slices. Soak in water to remove any extra bitterness.
- Pick coriander leaves and soak in water to freshen up. Pick young, equal-sized Thai basil leaves. Set aside.
Prepare the dressing.
- In a mortar and pestle, bruise the coriander roots.
- Add the hairy-fruited eggplant (or tomato substitute) and bruise to extract its juices.
- Season with lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar at the ratios indicated. Make sure the white sugar is fully dissolved.
- Strain and set aside.
Combine the salad.
- Arrange all the ingredients side-by-side in a mixing bowl, so you can visually gauge their ratios.
- Set aside the garnish, some of the kaffir lime leaves, and the bitter yellow eggplants.
- Before serving, toss all the ingredients together, then add the salad dressing and toss again.
- Place the salad on a serving plate. Let the ingredients fall and arrange organically – don’t force them but, rather, gently guide them into a tall cone-like shape. Garnish and serve.