It’s not about love……Virgil

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It’s not about love:

Ignoring Valentine ‘s Day and surviving the summer kitchen
Virgil Evetts


I suppose I could have jumped on the commercial bandwagon this week and thrown together some Valentine-inspired recipes for lovers or food for a-wooing, but alas, my cynicism prevents me. Valentine’s Day is banned in my house, along with bacchanalian excess on New Year’s Eve and tom-foolery on April 1st . We reserve the right to be affectionate, intoxicated and play cruel practical jokes on each other any time of the year.

So instead I’ve focused on the other inescapable force of the week  [at least in the upper North Island]; the cloying, sticky and energy sucking monster that is summer 2009. I’ve spent most of this week either thanking God for office air-con or gasping on my sofa, drowning in sweat, plagued by mosquitoes and cursing my role as primary cook in a house full of fussy, overly informed eaters. 

Not only should the food be light and simple on these scorching summer eves, but so should the preparation. Which brings us to that less than titillating inevitability, the summer salad…

But hey, it’s not all bad news. You must know by now that I’m not one to simply toss a few leaves and hope for the best.  Chlorophyll and cellulose does not a real meal make…

Sure, there are plenty of traditional and avant-garde salads of a European persuasion to choose from if you feel so inclined; Niçoise, Caesar, radicchio  with cough syrup etc blah blah. And they’re all perfectly fine in their own right too [with the possible exception of the latter], but just not quite dinner to my way of thinking  [gluttonously], or to warrant all that chopping. I have no head [nor interest] for finance, but I’m pretty sure that high investment, low return is a pretty bum deal.

If I’m going to raise a sweat in the kitchen it has to be for something I can really call dinner. It needs some carbs, some fat, some squish, and some crunch. A fully rounded package if you will. The vegetable-rich cuisines of South East Asian rarely disappoint in this regard. Here salads are a serious business and have been shaped by a  year-round assault of the  same sort of dirty, moist heat that hangs over Auckland all summer.


Two Asian salads in particular have been getting regular outings in our house of late:  one of which,   yam neua, is Thai in origin, or perhaps I should say influence as I make a pretty pared down version of the original [which can be horrifically hot]; and the other, Gado gado is a classic Indonesian dish that deserves to be far better known it currently is . Both of these dishes are light, zingy and refreshing, but still substantial enough to leave you feeling well sated.  Despite these salads both hailing from countries known for their fondness for chilli, you can limit and [sigh]… dare I say, omit it altogether. But you shouldn’t. The chilli makes you sweat which helps to cool you down and it triggers the release of endorphins, which make you feel good.  Of course  if you want to be hot and miserable be my guest.

 In New Zealand we usually think of Thai food as rather curry-centric, but in my experience, salads are the true stars of this cuisine and are certainly more regularly eaten by the average Thai.

The Thai idea of a salad, or yam, is somewhat removed from the European approach of plated  foliage. Everything is usually finely chopped, meat or fish are often included and most surprisingly for a salad they are served warm, or even hot.  When ordering salads in Thailand it pays to have a good Thai/English dictionary on hand as they can contain some rather challenging ingredients. Be particularly wary of the word Mangda which means water bug [or pimp, depending on the context]. These rather viscous creatures are not a pleasant surprise in any dish. Come to think of it neither are pimps.

Yam Neua

Thai [inspired] beef salad

[serves 3+]

500gms prime minced beef

1 red onion [finely sliced]

4 cloves New Zealand garlic [crushed]

Fresh chilli to taste [crushed]

2cm pieces of fresh ginger [peeled and crushed]

Juice of two lemons [limes are best but prohibitively pricey in summer]

3 Tbsp + fish sauce

1tsp + brown sugar

1 Tbsp dark soy sauce

1 Tbsp sesame oil

3 kaffir lime leaves [de-stemmed and finely chopped]

1 bunch of fresh Vietnamese mint * [de-stemmed and finely chopped]

1 tomato per person

1 cup blanched fresh green beans [roughly chopped]


In a very hot pan, sauté the mince until well browned and slightly crispy. Set aside.

Heat a little peanut oil [or similar] in the pan and sauté the garlic, ginger and chilli until tender. Add to the beef along with the onion, beans and tomato. Carefully toss.

To make the dressing combine all remaining ingredients in a bowl and adjust to taste. You are looking for that harmonious Thai blend of salty, sour, sweet and spicy.

Pour over the beef mixture, toss again and allow to rest for approximately 10 minutes. This will allow the beef to cool slightly and the flavours to properly develop.

Serve over roughly torn lettuce leaves and season with a drizzle of ketjap manis  [sweet soy sauce]

Like all Thai food this should be accompanied with [preferably Jasmine] rice. The Thai approach is that rice is always the main meal and everything else is but a garnish.

Note: If you don’t like raw onion, soak the slices in lemon juice for about an hour before using. This effectively ‘cooks’ the onion but preserves the texture.

*Vietnamese mint is available at the fresh herbs counter of most supermarkets. It tastes like a very peppery version of coriander with citrus-like overtones. Grows very easily from cuttings.


Gado gado

Indonesian peanut sauce salad

I’ve never quite understood why Indonesian food hasn’t caught on. Dish for dish I think it’s a more interesting cuisine than its better known cousin , Malaysian [although they do share many dishes and techniques], yet apart from chicken satay and nasi goreng most people wouldn’t know an Indonesian dish if it snuck up behind them with a gamelan orchestra.

Gado gado is a real no fuss dish. It relies on very fresh vegetables and great peanut sauce. Nothing more, nothing less, but it’s a guaranteed winner.

1 cup crunchy peanut butter

1 can coconut milk

2cm piece of fresh ginger [peeled and crushed]

1 onion [finely chopped]

3 cloves garlic [crushed]

Fresh chilli to taste [crushed]

1  kaffir lime leaf [de-stemmed and crushed]

Brown sugar to taste

1 tablespoon+ fish sauce Or 1 small piece of shrimp paste [terasi]

¼ cup tamarind water Or the juice of 2 lemons/limes

1 egg per person [hard boiled and halved]

Fresh seasonal vegetables such as green beans, zucchini, bean sprouts, tomato, cucumber etc, all roughly sliced.


To make the sauce, sauté the onions over a medium heat until very tender, add the garlic, ginger, chilli and lime leaf. Sauté for a minute or so longer.  Add the peanut butter and stir until melted and spluttering. Stir in the fish sauce or shrimp paste. Add the coconut milk. Stir until well blended and simmering. Add the tamarind or citrus juice and sugar. Add a little water to thin if necessary.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Set aside. This sauce burns easily and rather spectacularly so take care.

Use any combination of vegetables you like, but a thoughtful mix of textures and flavours  is important. Traditionally the vegetables should be raw but I prefer to par-cook zucchini, beans and other tough candidates. It’s all a matter of taste really.

I like to boil the eggs in the pot with the rice. This is just matter of pot-economy really. I’m told it’s a bit of a health risk but I’m still kicking, so go figure.

Generously smother the vegetables in the sauce, serve with rice and garnish with the halved boiled eggs.

Happy Valentine ‘s Day, if you’re that way inclined, otherwise enjoy and play nicely.


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2 thoughts on “It’s not about love……Virgil

  1. I also love these types of salads and often make a Vietnamese one which is very delicious and filling. I think I’ll have to give this Thai one a go tomorrow night beofre I have to go to work. The last time I made Gado Gado was years ago and this has also reminded me how delicious (and kid friendly) it is. Thanks for a great read Virgil. Informative and well written.

  2. Virgil, just love your way with words!!! Your interesting recipes, wonderful sense of humour and style of writing is so refreshing. Look forward to reading more from you on a regular basis!!