When in Thailand last year I became addicted to a simple little preparation called som tam, green papaya salad. In its simplest form, som tam is a blend of the four key flavors of Thai cuisine: sour (limes), salty (fish sauce), hot (Thai chilis) and sweet (palm sugar), with plenty of neutral shredded green papaya to smooth and distribute these rather intense ingredients. I liked it so much I took the step of learning how to make it at a cooking school in Chiang Mai. Upon returning home to my rainy town in the Pacific Northwest, I naturally bitched and moaned about all the ways my home fell deficient of Thailand (weather, scenery, coral beaches, a king who plays the saxophone, etc), and one of these faults was the absence of green papaya salad.
You may be thinking “but Dan, the Thai restaurant just down my street has green papaya salad on the menu.” And in fact I was moaning about this one day when a friend, surprised, told me that there was a Thai restaurant in my very town that served a great green papaya salad. I was instantly suspicious. “Is it made with green papaya?” I asked. In the cooking school we’d been warned that green papaya was hard to find in the West and we might have to substitute with cucumber. I was assured it was. At the next available instant, then, I went to the restaurant and ordered a green papaya salad.
Well, it did include green papaya, but it also appeared to include an entire head of shredded iceberg lettuce. It also was topped with slices of fried beef, and the chilis were optional (having the chilis optional is to Thai cuisine as having butter optional would be to French). What was this, a Thai restaurant or the Black Bear diner? This was in no way a green papaya salad. What I received was clearly what the Thai owners of the restaurant thought Westerners were after when they ordered a salad (“Hey, what kind of salad is this? Where’s the fried beef?”), and sadly, they were probably right. No Thai placed in such surroundings would recognise the fare served to them as particularly Thai.
Imagine my delight, when, weeks later, I happened across Chinese long bean (a crucial ingredient of som tam) in the produce section of Uwajimaya, the Japanese super-supermarket in Seattle. If only I could find some green papaya, I thought, I was in business. And there it was! Green papaya! I was in business!
Here, then, is the recipe I learned at the Baan Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai (www.baanthaicookery.com), adapted for two persons.
you will need…
One green papaya (don’t for a second think you can substitute cucumber for green papaya. You might as well substitute Wii bowling for bowling. And don’t get me started on Wii bowling.)
5 – 10 peeled cloves of garlic (that’s small cloves, not monstrous ones)
1 – 10 Thai chilis (a word about the chilis here. The only correct chili to use is the Thai chili, also called bird’s eye chili in the USA, and, pardon the bawdiness, ‘mouse shit’ chili in Thailand, for its shape. It’s a small red chili about an inch or two long, and very hot. I make my salad with three of them and it’s about right. Our instructor in Chiang Mai used ten for half these quantities, but then he was Thai.)
3 Chinese long beans, cut into 1- inch lengths (the leftover beans are great fried with soy sauce and garlic)
A small handful of roasted peanuts, chopped
One tomato sliced into quarters, or, for my preference, about 6 grape tomatoes halved
2 tbsp fish sauce (the Thais use fish sauce in everything, even salad. Curiously enough, so did the ancient Romans, though they called it liquamen or garum, but more on that some other time.)
1 tsp palm sugar (palm sugar has a very distinctive taste but is somewhat difficult to find and even more challenging to use, being rock hard if you don’t live in a tropical climate. So this is the one substitute I might be prepared to make in this salad. Add a little brown sugar if you can’t find it.)
Shred your green papaya. For this I use a specific green papaya shredder I bought in an Asian grocery for about a buck, but anything that shreds or juliennes would probably work. You want nice long strips of green papaya, kind of a heap of vegetable spaghetti. Figure on about one large handful per salad.
Halve or quarter the tomatoes (depending on size) and add to the papaya.
Put the garlic, the chilis, and the Chinese long bean into a mortar and pestle. Pound it, but not too thoroughly. You want everything broken up good (especially the chilis), but not transformed into paste.
Add the sugar, the lime juice (the Thais actually add quarters of whole lime, but their limes are tiny and tender, not big and fibrous, so I just add lime juice) and the fish sauce to the mortar and pestle and pound it in a bit. If you are using palm sugar, you would pound it until the sugar is dissolved. This is your chance to juggle the flavours to your preference, which is the accepted technique in Thailand, even in restaurants. These quantities are a good middle ground for me.
Add the contents of the mortar and pestle to the papaya and tomato and mix well. Dress with chopped peanuts. You are done!
and about the taste…
Green papaya salad is clearly a bizarre mix of flavours, but one of those bizarre mixes of flavours that seems to attain perfection. The chilis, normally ferociously hot, have a lot of their heat absorbed by the green papaya, leaving just enough force to evoke a pleasant prickling of sweat behind the eyeballs. The fish sauce and sugar make the perfect dressing for the tomatoes. The garlic is hardly present at all. Basically, you will find yourself taking big crunchy forkfuls of this salad and cramming it into your mouth until, at the end, you’ll wish you’d made more. Fortunately, you will have plenty of your green papaya left. One goes a long way.
a note on fish sauce…
A great deal has been written about fish sauce by more educated foodies than I – I recommend you check out Viet World Kitchen for starters. Fish sauce, called Nuoc Mam, is a crucial ingredient in Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese cuisine. Every, and I mean every Asian market carries it, in several different brands.