In most recipes, the dressing’s flavors are unbalanced or the beef itself doesn’t boast enough char to give the salad its hallmark smoky, faintly bitter edge.
We wanted our recipe to feature the cuisine’s five signature flavor elements-hot, sour, salty, sweet, and bitter-in perfect balance, making for a light but satisfying weeknight dish.
We started our testing with the beef. Flank steak won our preliminary tests because of its uniform shape, moderate price, and beefiness. We decided not to marinate the meat. Moisture thwarts browning, and we wanted a nicely browned exterior.
With the cut of meat decided, we could now focus our attention on the grilling method. We turned to the test kitchen’s favorite high-heat grill method: a modified two-level fire, in which all the coals are concentrated in an even layer over half of the grill. This created a true blaze which allowed the meat’s exterior to caramelize almost on contact and cook more rapidly, ensuring that the interior stayed medium-rare. We flipped the meat as soon as beads of moisture appeared on the meat’s surface, and then let it sear another few minutes on the other side. This gave us steak that was not only perfectly charred on the exterior, but also spot-on medium-rare within.
With perfectly grilled and subtly, satisfyingly bitter meat on hand, we moved on to the dressing, which had to feature the four Thai flavor elements: hot, sour, salty, and sweet. We started with a base of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and water, and then added a Thai chile and a mix of toasted cayenne and paprika, which added earthy, fruity red pepper flavor.
We had only one remaining condiment to address: kao kua, or toasted rice powder. As it turned out, we found it simple enough to make our own by toasting rice in a dry skillet and pulverizing it in a spice grinder. Tossing half of the powder with the salad components gave the dressing fuller body, while sprinkling on the rest at the table added faint but satisfying crunch.
We finished our salad with just one extra: a thin-sliced cucumber, which contributed a cool crispness and complemented-but didn’t compete with-the grilled beef.