When fresh corn is in season, you don’t need to do much to let its flavor shine. I love chomping down on an ear of grilled or steamed corn on the cob, but when I’m feeling a bit more creative, I like to make tam khao pod kai kem, a bright and refreshing Thai salad that pairs the sweet pop of corn with creamy coconut milk and a savory, sour, and sweet dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. Crisp long beans and juicy cherry tomatoes add texture, Thai chiles lend subtle heat, and dried shrimp and salted duck egg reinforce the salad’s savory side. This is the perfect side dish to celebrate the last of summer produce.
Tam-style salads are pounded salads found in Lao and in Thai cuisines. Som tam, which combines the word for sour (som) and the term for pounding in a mortar (tam), has become synonymous with green papaya salad, which is easily the most well-known tam-style salad outside of the region. But there are countless variations on the theme that use ingredients beyond green papaya, such as cucumber or, in this case, corn. While the components of tam-style salads can vary, the process for making them doesn’t change much.
Like a prik gaeng (curry paste), a som tam comes together by pounding ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Components are added in stages, starting with fibrous aromatics, and gradually working toward more delicate ingredients, pounding and mixing with the pestle along the way. Unlike curry pastes, the goal here isn’t to pulverize the ingredients into a fine paste, but rather to bruise and break them down just until they release their aromas. It’s a much quicker and gentler process, and it typically requires a different style of mortar and pestle: wooden or clay mortars are used for tam-style salads, rather than the heavy granite ones used for curry pastes.
For tam khao pod kai kem, I start by simmering whole ears of fresh corn in coconut milk until they are just tender. The corn picks up a subtle layer of fatty richness from the coconut, while also imparting its own flavor to the coconut milk, which I drizzle over the salad right before serving. Once cooked and cooled slightly, I cut the corn off the cobs in planks rather than individual kernels—to give the salad more interesting textural contrast—and set them aside.
With the corn squared away, it’s time to turn to the mortar and pestle. First, I pound garlic, chiles, dried shrimp, and palm sugar for a few seconds until just broken down slightly. I then add long beans and a handful of cherry tomatoes to the mix, and pound them just until the tomatoes split and release some of their juices. I stir in fish sauce and lime juice to balance out the sweetness of the palm sugar, which I fully dissolve in the liquids by gently working the pestle around the mortar in a circular motion. Finally, I mix the reserved corn and a crumbled salted duck egg into the salad with a spoon, so as not to break up the clusters of corn. The salted duck egg lends briny richness to the dish, with a texture and flavor that is somewhat reminiscent of Italian ricotta salata, and it serves as a welcome foil to the sweet corn. The resulting salad bursts with pops of crunch from the coconut-infused corn and bruised long beans, the flavors held together by the the nicely balanced sweet, savory, sour, and salty dressing. It’s a salad you’ll want to make over and over again.
In a medium Dutch oven, combine coconut milk, salt and granulated sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to help dissolve salt and sugar. Add corn, and use tongs to turn ears until evenly coated on all sides with coconut milk. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook, checking and turning occasionally with tongs, until corn is tender, about 6 minutes. Transfer corn to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly; remove coconut milk mixture from heat and reserve.
Once corn is cool enough to handle, working with one ear at a time, use a sharp knife to cut kernels off of cob in large planks, rotating ear 90 degrees onto freshly cut side between cuts. Do your best to keep corn pieces as large as possible and not separate into individual kernels. Repeat with remaining ears of corn; discard cobs, and set corn aside.
Using a sharp knife, halve salted duck egg lengthwise, cutting through the shell. Scoop egg out of the shell with a spoon; discard shell. Using clean hands, crumble egg into small pieces, and set aside.
In a clay or wooden mortar and pestle, combine garlic and chiles and pound to a very coarse paste, about 30 seconds. Add palm sugar and dried shrimp and pound until slightly broken down, about 20 seconds. Add tomatoes and long beans, and pound lightly until beans are lightly crushed and tomatoes have released some of their juices but are still mostly intact, about 15 seconds. Take care not to over-pound; you want the ingredients to maintain their integrity and texture. Add fish sauce and lime juice, and using the pestle, stir in a circular motion, applying gentle pressure to the mortar to fully dissolve the palm sugar, about 15 seconds.
Add reserved corn and salted duck egg. Using a large spoon, mix gently to combine, while doing your best to keep corn in large clusters (some of the corn will break down into individual kernels, and that’s fine). Transfer to a serving plate and drizzle with 1/4 cup (60ml) of reserved coconut milk mixture. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine or sticky rice.
Dutch oven, clay or wooden mortar and pestle
When purchasing coconut milk, look for versions like this one from Aroy-D that have “100% coconut milk” as the only listed ingredient, rather than those made with coconut extract and water.
You can adjust the spiciness of this salad to suit your taste by reducing or increasing the amount of fresh Thai chiles in the recipe.
Dried shrimp can be found in Asian markets and also online.
Palm sugar can be found in Southeast Asian markets, as well as some nationwide supermarkets like HMart, and also online. At room temperature, palm sugar is a solid mass and needs to be softened so that it can be incorporated into the dressing. You can soften palm sugar in the following ways by microwave at full power in a microwave-safe bowl for approximately 15 seconds. If you can’t find palm sugar, you can substitute with 1 teaspoon (5g) granulated sugar.
Cooked salted duck eggs are used in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines, and can be found In Asian markets or online. In the States, they are usually sold fully cooked, in-shell, and individually vacuum sealed. They provide a savory, salty punch to this dish. If you can’t find salted duck eggs, increase amount of fish sauce in the dressing to 3 tablespoons (45ml).
Make-Ahead and Storage
This dish is best enjoyed immediately.