The art of tapas – and my number one salad of all time

This week, celebrity chef Stephen Saunders is making tapas and re-creating this incredible Thai beef salad, straight from Thailand.

Thai Beef Salad Stephen Saunders (62904698)
Thai Beef Salad Stephen Saunders (62904698)

When I got married the first time (there were a few!) it was in 1987. Sally (who now owns Esse Ladies retail store and popular spa in Melbourne, Cambridgeshire) and I celebrated our honeymoon in Thailand.

It was a real experience for both of us – we were only 25 years old. We went to an expensive Thai restaurant on a river and had what looked like scabies. The problem was that it was a green pepper, it was very hot. I spent the rest of that evening with my tongue in a glass of ice water. No wonder the marriage didn’t work out! Even though it was hot, it was the best beef salad I’ve ever eaten.

The tapas experience allows you to try many different flavors and share different dishes with friends and family.

It was originally intended as small bites of food on a plate to cover a glass of wine. Tapas is “to cover” in Spanish. But it has evolved and become the celebrated food of Spain.

In Spain, tapas is excellent, and bistros, restaurants and small chringinguitos all over the country do it brilliantly. It would be hard for a British chef to follow because the Spanish culture is what makes it so special.

So when I created our new tapas menu at Olivia’s La Cala de Mijas in Spain, I structured it differently. A little Asian, a little Spanish, a little Peruvian, some Thai and even a little Italian. In fact, anything works if it’s done well and certainly not strung together. Remember, merger is confusion!

At my previous restaurant in La Cala de Mijas Spain (The Little Geranium), we cooked world class tapas at lunchtime and won several awards, one of which was the best tapas in the Málaga area.

Malaga is a huge area full of great restaurants serving amazing tapas. I was happy and amazed. We were frequently visited by regulars, friends and many celebrities. Lorraine Kelly loved it so much that she booked her 60th birthday party with us.

So we had something different and it worked out well. I sat down and thought a lot about it before moving on to show it to Olivia because it had to be perfect, and it had to be creative and look iconic.

It’s not as simple as it might seem – it’s not just small portions of food, it’s a morsel with exciting flavour.

In the end, I decided the best approach was to opt for a few highlights such as the Thai beef salad, prawn ceviche with strawberries and of course the famous crispy duck salad. I got it all together and launched it last week.

Launch day was blowing up a storm – not the best weather, but people sat inside and loved sharing some of my greats throughout.

This is what tapas brings, apart from a great culinary experience. It brings joy and laughter, an all-encompassing dining and sharing experience.

My new chef, John, and I decorate dishes to make them look like art. We all eat with our eyes but there are literally wonderful flavors out there.

I made Thai beef salad for Elliot Wright, founder and owner of Olivia’s Restaurant in La Cala and asked, “How’s that?”

“Wonderful, mate… Absolutely amazing,” he replied. That’s good enough for me!

At home, I often cook small plates of food—mostly crispy Chinese fried chicken, pil pil and Thai beef salad—then I serve them in the center of the table, with potato bravas with a spicy paprika sauce made authentically with olive oil, but my favorite is Thai beef salad by far.

The secret to this lovely dish is the sauce and medium rare beef with the crunch of roasted peanuts. For me it is the number one salad of all time.

It is a simple salad to prepare and here is the recipe.

The recipe belongs to a lady named Siri Sirisang, the chef in Thailand who taught me Thai food, except of course that I changed and developed it, but very slightly. She worked for me for many years in Cambridgeshire after leaving Thailand.

I have no idea where I went after I left the Cambridgeshire hotel in 2007 because we lost contact, but if you’re reading Siri, please connect!

Stephen Saunders is Executive Chef at Olivia’s.

keep in touch

Steven Thai Beef Salad (serves 2)


The sauce

  • A small bunch of coriander roots and stems, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
  • Juice of 1 fresh lemon
  • 1 mild red pepper (jalapeno), seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine white pepper
  • A pinch of Maldon salt
  • 2 tablespoons of sweet chili sauce

the meat

  • 250 grams of rump or sirloin, seasoned well
  • A little olive oil


  • A small bunch of fresh mint leaves
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced ​​Pickled (optional)
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 1 full tablespoon of coriander leaves
  • 8 Thai basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon roasted peanuts or cashews
  • 2/3 radish, thinly sliced ​​(optional)
  • a few pea shoots (optional)


  • First, prepare the sauce by mixing all the ingredients together except the lemon, in a saucepan and over low heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Pass through a sieve and leave to cool completely. Add lemon juice.
  • Season the meat, seal, and quickly cook in a very hot skillet for 2 minutes on each side, until flaky on the outside, leaving the inside rare. Let him rest for four minutes.
  • Mix all leaves and herbs with tomatoes, onions and radishes.
  • Thinly slice the meat on a board and season.
  • Put the beef with the salad ingredients in a bowl, then add the sauce and stir.
  • Build a tidy high mound of salad making sure the proportion of beef, herbs, etc. is even.
  • Garnish with green peas, sprinkle with toasted nuts and serve with chopsticks.

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