Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Tastebuds Are Still in Asia: Green Papaya Salad

So my recent trip to Southeast Asia? I came back with lots more than great pixels. I've always always been a fan of Thai/Vietnamese food, but visiting the region has taken my love of Southeast Asian cuisine to a new level. I returned home with several cookbooks in tow, and seem to spend every weekend trying out something new. I've thrown a couple of Thai/Lao dinner parties, subjecting my friends to my current obsession as well (so far, no complaints).

While the majority of the dishes I've been making are Lao-based, the line is pretty blurry since the whole region shares and borrows flavors and ingredients. So sure - there's some Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese and Chinese influence.... it doesn't really matter; it's all scrumptious, fresh and oh-so-healthy. My kind of eats. I'll be sharing some of my favorites here on this blog all week long.

This first recipe is found throughout Thailand and Laos, with not too much variation. It's one of my favorites found state-side as well: Green Papaya Salad (my chosen local version being from The Slanted Door or Out The Door in San Francisco). It's called Som Tum in Thailand (or Som Tum Rama if you add dried shrimp) - "som" meaning sour and "tom" refering to the pounding sound of the pestle used to crush ingredients. It's known as Goi Du Du in Vietnam, and Tam Mak Hoong in Laos. Whatever you call it, I call it good.

In Laos especially, the dish is served really spicy - and I mean REALLY spicy. I love me some heat, but I must admit that I had to ask for mine to be prepared "a la gringo" with maybe a 1/4 of the amount of fiery birds-eye chilies than would be used normally (each salad over there is prepared individually in a deep stone mortar and pestle, so accommodating my request wasn't difficult... just laughable!).

Green papaya is just that - unripe papaya that has extremely different characteristics from the sweet, ripened fruit. It's sour and tangy, and has almost a vegetable quality to it - making it ideal for chopping up and adding to soups or curries, or in this case, shredded or julienned as a crunchy base for a salad. It also makes a great meat tenderizer when pulverized or juiced; its acidity/sourness go to work on the protein fibers in meat like nobody's business.

At any rate - the salad. It's ridiculously simple. You might have to search for the main ingredient, the green papaya, but any well-stocked Asian market should carry it (I'm lucky enough to live close enough to a couple of 99 Ranch Markets). Other than that, the remainder of the ingredients are easily found and the preparation is a piece of cake.

The recipe I've included is from my favorite souvenir of my trip, a book called Ant Egg Soup, a gift given to me by my traveling companion and roommate (thanks Patty!). It's a basic recipe, but I've tweaked it a couple of different ways, depending on my mood. I've added both dried and fresh shrimp, or fried tofu cubes - all tasty ways to add protein while maintaining the integrity of the dish. You could also add grilled strips of steak - I ate it that way in Laos and loved it, of course.

Green Papaya Salad
Ant Egg Soup, Natacha Du Pont De Bie

The dish should be juicy and taste hot, sour, salty and sweet, with a hint of the piscine. It is also divine with raw turnip which tastes extremely like green papaya once mixed with the other ingredients.
  • 1/2 green papaya, skinned and shredded into matchstick-thin strips
  • 2-6 birds-eye chilies
  • 4 small cloves garlic, peeled
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 lime, cut into eighths, rind on
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
Take a green, unripe papaya and peel it with a vegetable peeler. Use a mandolin or food processor to shred into strips. To a mortar and pestle, add the chilies, garlic and salt; pound roughly so the chili is still in large pieces (not a paste). Add the papaya and pound gently, using a spoon to turn the ingredients in on themselves. Add the lime pieces and fish sauce. Pound gently. Add the tomato and serve. Add more fish sauce or lime to taste.


  1. Thanks for sharing! I need to check out 99 Ranch. Never heard of it!I am craving that salad.

  2. 99 Ranch is amazing! The closest ones to us are in Concord or Richmond (the Concord store is nicer). But Ran and I should have you and Dan over for dinner .... I could make a killer Thai meal! :)