Andy Oliver, left, and Neil Rankin tuck in
Andy Oliver, left, and Neil Rankin tuck in

Neil Rankin recipes: Our chef is inspired by Andy Oliver's Som Saa

Som Saa has changed the face of South-east Asian cuisine in London. Here, Neil Rankin shares a favourite dish from the restaurant, alongside three of his own influenced by the country's bold flavours

Neil Rankin
Saturday 31 October 2015 17:21
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I first noticed Andy Oliver (pictured above left, with Neil) when he appeared on MasterChef in 2009, back when the show still had a spark. Andy made the final, but what impressed me more was what he did afterwards: Andy was clearly into cooking Thai cuisine and rather than writing a cookbook and getting on TV, he made the unpopular post-MasterChef choice and became a working chef. He went to work for probably the best person possible in the shape of David Thompson, then of Nahm London and now on the pass at Nahm Bangkok, which was this year named 22nd best restaurant in the world.

Andy then worked at The Begging Bowl in Peckham and launched a concept with Alan Yau before starting a pop-up called Som Saa at Climpson's Arch in Hackney. Som Saa has gone on to almost single-handedly change the face of Thai cuisine in London. The food there is heart-stoppingly bold in flavour and spice, yet has a delicate balance and freshness that keeps people coming back. So moreish is it, in fact, that they recently raised £700,000 in crowd-funding in a matter of hours to fund their first permanent restaurant.

Here I've included Andy's som tam (green papaya) salad, easily the best version of this traditional dish that I have tasted, as well as a Thai salad of my own that is focused on seasonal British ingredients. I've also done a couple of non-traditional recipes using Thai flavours: a spicy lamb-belly larb, and fish and chips served coated in a lemongrass and ginger caramel. It tastes a lot less weird than it sounds.

Neil Rankin is co-owner of Smokehouse and Bad Egg, and food boss at London Union

Andy Oliver's Som Saa Bangkok-style green papaya salad

This classic Thai street-food dish goes really well with grilled chicken or pork skewers and sticky rice.

Preparation time: 20 mins

Cooking time: 5 mins

Serves 2-4 as part of a shared Thai meal

3 garlic cloves
Good pinch salt
2 tbsp roasted peanuts
2 tbsp dried prawns, rinsed and drained (you can find these in almost any Asian supermarket)
2 small wedges lime (optional)
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 snake beans, cut into 1 cm lengths (if you can't find snake beans, you can use fine green beans)
4-6 bird's eye chillies, to taste
1 small green papaya, shredded
2 tbsp shaved palm sugar, to taste
2-3 tbsp fish sauce
2-3 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp tamarind water

​Andy Oliver’s Som Saa Bangkok-style green papaya salad

Using a pestle and mortar, pound the garlic with the salt then add the peanuts and dried prawns and pound to a coarse paste.

Add the lime wedges (if using), bruising them with the pestle, then add the cherry tomatoes and beans to the mortar and carefully work everything together.

Next add the bird's eye chillies, barely crushing them.

Finally, add the green papaya and lightly bruise with the pestle, while turning and tossing the mixture with a large spoon held in your other hand.

Season the salad with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and tamarind water. It should taste sweet, sour, hot and salty.

Neil working on his Thai recipes at Som Saa 

Any-season warm Thai salad

I took my inspiration for this from a New York restaurant called Pok Pok. It can be made with almost any vegetable or fruit to hand. The idea is to slice the veg thin and not cook them, but gently warm them in the sweet fragrant dressing so they cook ever so slightly but stay crunchy and fresh. This is complemented by some crunchy peanuts, crunchy garlic and as much chilli as you can take.

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 10 seconds

Serves 2-4

½ fennel bulb, sliced
½ courgette, sliced
2 baby turnips, sliced
2 breakfast radishes, sliced
Kernels of ½ sweetcorn
4 runner beans, roughly chopped
1 baby leek, sliced in half lengthways
1 sweet apple, sliced into batons
2 bird's eye chillies, finely chopped
Handful fresh mint, roughly chopped
Handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped, stalks and all
2 tbsp chopped roasted peanuts
1 tbsp chopped crispy garlic (fine slices of garlic fried in oil)

For the dressing

50ml water
50g light soft brown sugar
35ml lime juice
30ml fish sauce
7g ginger paste
7g garlic paste

A Thai salad with fennel, turnip , leek and courgette 

Place all the vegetables and fruit in a bowl with the herbs. Place all the ingredients for the dressing in a saucepan and heat it until it feels body temperature-warm to the touch. Do not boil. If it boils or gets too hot, let it cool. Pour over the salad and toss till evenly covered and top with the peanuts and garlic and serve straight away.

Lamb-belly larb burrito

On its own, this larb can be served as a salad or wrapped up for a great lunch snack. The sauce is thickened with toasted rice powder and is much more sour than the warm Thai salad dressing. Usually a larb is made with minced meat, but I think a fatty braised meat soaks up the juice better and gives it more meatiness and volume.

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 5 hours

Serves 4

1 lamb belly, off the bone
100g fresh lime juice
100g fish sauce
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tsbp chopped spring onion
2 tbsp toasted rice powder
1 tbsp dried red pepper powder (available from any Asian supermarket)
2 handfuls mint, roughly chopped
2 bird's eye chillies, sliced
4 flour tortillas

Great lunch snack: Lamb-belly larb

To make the toasted rice powder, buy some uncooked Thai sticky rice and toast a small amount at a time in a dry pan. Once it's a nice caramel-brown colour, blitz it all in a blender into a coarse powder.

Simmer the lamb belly in a saucepan, covered in water, for 5 hours, until tender. Braise with a lid on but leave a small gap for steam to escape. Once cooked, allow to cool then chop into chunks and leave to one side.

Mix the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, spring onion, rice powder and pepper powder together then coat the meat till it soaks in. Add the mint and chillies and serve in the tortillas with a little of the sauce on the side to dip.

Lemongrass fish and chips

This is more Vietnamese than Thai, but it's delicious, so who cares? The best thing about this recipe is that when the chips get cold and usually become soft, the caramel hardens and they become crispy again. Like a toffee apple.

Preparation time: 1 hour

Cooking time: 10 mins

Serves 4

100g light brown sugar
30ml fish sauce
1 tsp grated lemongrass
1tsp ginger paste
2 large Maris Piper potatoes
2 tbsp white-wine vinegar
150g tempura flour
Bottle of beer
4 x 200g fillets of hake or coley
1 sliced green bird's eye chilli
1 tbsp chopped dill
2 limes

Delicious: Lemongrass fish and chips 

To make the caramel, place the sugar and fish sauce in a pan and heat until bubbling. Remove from the heat and add the lemongrass and ginger. Leave to one side.

For the chips, peel the spuds and slice into 1½cm chips. Blanch in water with salt and the white-wine vinegar till soft then chill. Then fry twice at 180C in a deep-fat fryer, chilling them between fries. Cover with salt after the second fry.

Mix the tempura flour with enough beer to make a thick paste. Coat your fish in the batter and fry at 180C for about 3 to 5 minutes or until golden-brown.

Heat the caramel and place the fish and chips in a bowl. Toss both with the caramel and place on a plate. Top with the chilli and dill and serve with half a lime to squeeze over.

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