No, not an unknown Vietnam veteran, but the ubiquitous Thai salad dressing. It is used to dress all manner of salads, most famously in the west, Thai beef salad. You will need to throw out all you know about western salad dressings that contain oil and vinegar. This pungently hot, no oil version is a microcosm of the idea of flavour balance in Thai cuisine.
This balance is achieved when four main flavours mix in harmony, none dominating. The heat of chillies, sweet, sour and salty combine, and to increase a single flavour is not just a case of adding more of that ingredient. It has to be subtly blended so that no one flavour is overwhelming. You will certainly know if the mix is out of whack, just keep tweaking the mix until it tastes seamless.
I am currently using this dressing on a salad of shredded unripe green mango and calamari (squid). It is all tossed together with coriander (cilantro), mint and Thai basil leaves, and topped off with crispy fried shallots. It is hugely popular on our menu. Let's do it.
3 Coriander roots, chopped (use stems and leaves if unobtainable)
2 cloves garlic
1 cm knob of ginger, peeled and chopped
2 red bird's eye (scud) chillies*, chopped
60 ml (3 Tbs) fish sauce
30 ml (1 ½Tbs) fresh lime juice
1 tsp palm sugar, chopped
Place the coriander, garlic and ginger into a mortar and pestle and grind for a minute or two, until the mix is coarsely ground. Add the chillies and pound for a few seconds more. Be aware that the longer you grind, the more the flavours develop, especially the chilli. Add the remaining ingredients and mix together. Taste and adjust for sugar, fish sauce or lime. Lasts 24 hours, refrigerated. You could try making this in a food processor, but it will really rip these strong flavours out. Just be careful to not over blend.
* I have never used serrano chillies, but often see them substituted in Thai recipes, so maybe try these if bird's eye are unavailable. Take out the seeds if you can't stand the heat.