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Thai Food: Green Papaya Salad or Som Tum
Thai Green Papaya Salad
This salad is not only beautiful in appearance, it’s inexpensive and extremely simple to make. Made from the crisp, light green flesh of unripe papayas, it is then mixed with garlic, cherry tomatoes, snake beans (or green beans) and Thai chilies then garnished with bean sprouts and roasted peanuts. A versitle salad that you can have as a meal or a snack, it's wonderful this time of the year when spring is right around the corner and through the summer, when the weather gets hot and steamy.
If you were curious about the origin of the name as I was, “som” means sour and “tum” refers to the pounding sound of the large pestle banging against the mortar, which is traditionally used to crush the ingredients. A spicy salad at heart (extremely spicy if you’re in the south of Thailand, as opposed to the north where food tends to be milder and sweeter) it actually has its roots in Lao cuisine, but has long been popular all over Thailand (the addition of peanuts, for example, is a disntinctlyThai thing). Green papaya salad combines dynamic tastes that pop up again and again in Thai cuisine: sour lime, spicy chili, sweet palm sugar and salty and slightly bitter fish sauce, the latter being perhaps the most important ingredient in Thai dishes.
From Thailand to Your Table
The recipe included here is another dish that I made for the first time at my Thai street food cooking class and it has been on repeat ever since. According to our teacher, Jam, who is from the south of Thailand, som tum, or papaya salad, is a dish best bought on the street. It is very rare to see this dish made at home in Thailand, as locals know that to get it fresh, quick and cheap, you need to go to a vendor. There is something to be said about respecting the master when she has done something right--most vendors are seen as experts and have turned simple acts such as crushing baby shrimp into a culinary art.
Of course, that’s in Thailand. Here in the United States, there aren’t many street vendors or food trucks (that I’ve seen) selling fresh papaya salad.
Here are some tips for making a great papaya salad:
First, it’s a good idea to start with the sauce, which you can make ahead of time. Because there is a bit of elbow grease involved, be sure to make a whole bunch—if properly stored, it can last you almost forever. I would recommend using every ingredient listed, with two possible exceptions:
1. If you can’t take spicy, then use less chili, or buy a milder chili.
2. If you are a vegetarian, substitute fish sauce with soy sauce. However, if you’re not an uber strict vegetarian, please give the fish sauce a try; it is a staple in Thai cuisine and brings the ingredients together, truly elevating the whole meal.
Making Papaya Salad Sauce
Note: You can buy premixed tamarind concentrate or just make your own tamarind juice. At any Asian market you can find compressed tamarind pulp, which will last you a while. Cut off a good chunk from the block (about 1/ cup) and soak it in 1 ½ cups of warm water for about 20 minutes. Squeeze the pulp and collect the liquid in a separate container and discard the seeds and pulp when done. You now have your very own homemade tamarind juice, which you can store for months or even years in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer.
* This is also an important element in pad Thai
Next, blend these ingredients either using a food processor or a mortar and pestle
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 pinch salt
4-6 Thai chilies, minced
2 Tbsp. palm sugar (also found at Asian markets, this sugar smells better than granulated sugar and helps make the sauce thicker. Heat it up with 1 tsp. water to make syrup)
1 Tbsp. tamarind water (see note)
1-2 Tbsp. fish sauce (found at Asian markets and some specialty food stores)
1 Tbsp. shelled, roasted peanuts
2 Tbsp. dried shrimp, minced in a food processor or mortar and pestle (you can buy this pre-packaged, or roast baby shrimp in an oven until dry and crunchy)
4 cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 handfuls snake beans (if you can’t find any, skip this ingredient, or simply use green beans), cut into one inch pieces
2-3 cups shredded green papaya (big tip: buy a papaya shredder, sold at most Asian markets for about $3; see picture above)
1. Pound garlic, salt and chilies with mortar and pestle, or pulse with a food processor.
2. Add peanuts and dried shrimp and pound even more (if you or someone else is squeamish about baby shrimp in their salad, pound the daylights out of the suckers and you’ll get a nice pink powder).
3. In a bowl, mix the ingredients for the salad, then add in the lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind water and melted palm sugar. Mix well.
4. In a separate bowl, add shredded papaya, cherry tomatoes and beans.
5. Mix the sauce into the salad; toss well.
A Final Word
Many people consider the Thai chili to be the base of green papaya salad, while all the other ingredients act as balancers to the powerful, fiery taste. Prepare the salad to your spice comfort level, and feel free to add more peanuts for a welcome but subtle crunch. The finished product should be tangy and spicy, cool and hot. Like much of Thai cuisine (including the famous pad Thai) the combination of vivid flavors and contrasts is unforgettable and delectably satisfying. Enjoy!