My Kitchen Garden: Life-Changing Thai Beef Salad

May 29, 2019

When I lived in New York City, if you’d told me I’d be giving up my weekly manicure appointment and that I’d be snipping aromatic herbs out of my kitchen garden in East Africa at 5 in the morning, I’d have signed you up for a stint at the Bellevue mental hospital. After all, I was the health and beauty manager at The New York Times and I had to look the part. 

I flitted around the city like a spa junkie, teetering on cracked asphalt in precariously high-heeled Jimmy Choos. Perfectly coifed, always waxed and pedicured, I could not have been less interested in getting my hands dirty. The truth was, I was unfulfilled at work but I’d driven myself so very hard to get to that Carrie Bradshaw West Village Valhalla that I didn’t want to admit it wasn’t much fun when I had arrived. I was trapped in the illusion and cache of the venerable “Gray Lady” while trying desperately not to turn into one. 

One day, on yet another spa junket to Bangkok — restless in spirit and massaged to within an inch of my life — I came upon an ad for a cooking school in a century-old renovated mansion at the famed Blue Elephant restaurant. As a lifelong cook who had a classic Manhattan-sized postage stamp of a kitchen, the advertisement instantly triggered a jolt of excitement that my ultra-caffeinated city life hadn’t managed to deliver in quite some time. Another enticement — the class was to be taught by one of Thailand’s top five chefs, the ferociously entrepreneurial master chef Nooror Somany Steppe, widely recognized as a leading ambassador of Thai cuisine the world over. 

The next day, I found myself sitting in a whitewashed room in the second story of the restaurant, balmy breezes gently blowing through tropical wooden-slatted windows. The ceilings were tall and airy, the kitchen ingeniously mirrored from above, reflecting the skill and precision of the main attraction at the chopping block. I was a mere arm’s length from the diminutive powerhouse chef, all 5 feet of her, equal parts sweet and salty, just like the delicate balancing act of the Thai flavors she taught as an introduction to the course.

Although I had always enjoyed the sharp and bright tastes of Thai dishes, when I tasted our creations — made by plucking fresh piles of herbs sitting in water-filled pitchers like flowers in a vase, it changed my palate and the direction of my life. Somehow, the almost spiritual experience of the classic Thai five (sweet, salty, creamy, sour, spicy), zesty with lime juice, sweet and sour tamarind, creamy coconut and earthy cilantro with just enough bird’s eye chile to fascinate the tongue — this, I thought, this is living. 

A few years later, after a series of serendipitous disasters, I found myself in the tropical paradise of Uganda, as far from my perfectly manicured, high-rise lifestyle as I could possibly have traveled; the idea of a kitchen garden too irresistible to suppress a moment longer. 

I planted myself a quarter acre of herbs and edible flowers in my restaurant garden, plenty of Thai basil, mint, cilantro and chiles as far as the eye could see. The first menu item: Thai beef salad, one of many dishes I learned from the Blue Elephant Cooking Academy.

This is a cinch to make whenever you have leftover grilled steak or chicken around, like you might after a holiday barbecue. Feel free to leave out the meat — I’ve made it with tofu and even grilled vegetables. The recipe is an adaptation of the base recipe from Blue Elephant but I add mango, avocado, crispy rice noodles and peanuts to push it over the top, New York-style. This healthy and deceptively simple salad remains one of the best-selling menu items in my café at the American Embassy in Kampala, and one of my favorites to prepare. But beware, if you dare taste it with fresh herbs from your own kitchen garden, there may be no going back to your perfectly manicured life.


4 bird’s eye chiles, chopped finely (optional)
1 mild red chile
4 cloves garlic, peeled
5 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar

10 ounces grilled steak, thinly sliced
1 cucumber, quartered lengthways, seeded and thinly sliced
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
2 spring onions (scallions), sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large handfuls mixed salad leaves (arugula, romaine, cress)

1/2 small avocado, sliced
1/2 small mango, sliced
2 radishes, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, chopped
Crispy fried rice noodles (optional, recipe below)
4 ounces uncooked rice vermicelli, broken into 2-inch pieces
1 cup peanut oil, for frying

To make the dressing, use a pestle to pound chiles and garlic in a mortar until crushed. Add remaining dressing ingredients and stir well to combine. Pour dressing into a large salad bowl. 

Add the thinly sliced beef, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions into the bowl and toss lightly with the dressing. Transfer to a serving dish lined with the salad leaves.

To make the crispy fried rice noodles, heat peanut oil in a small pot. To test if oil is hot enough, drop in one noodle. It should puff up in 10 seconds. Fry broken noodles in batches until they are puffy but have not changed color (about 30 seconds per batch). Remove noodles from oil with a small strainer or kitchen spider and lay on paper towels to cool and blot excess oil.

Garnish with avocado and mango slices, radishes, cilantro, mint and top with chopped peanuts and crispy rice noodles (if using).

Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

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