Salads are inherently adaptable creatures, but I’m going to go out on a limb and call papaya salad the biggest chameleon of all. Back home in Australia, a papaya salad generally consists of a load of shredded carrot and cucumber (and only sometimes actual papaya) doused with a sweet, vaguely chili-esque dressing. But having spent the past several months travelling throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I’ve discovered that each country’s take on papaya salad is wildly different, with a wide variety of ingredients and delicately nuanced flavors.
The Thai papaya salad that I’ve grown to know and love over the last few weeks—or Som Tam, as it’s known locally—is less sweet, more salty and a hell of a lot spicier than any other I’ve tried. The addition of big chunks of tomato, crushed snake beans and a whole lot of birds eye chilies turns this gentle little salad on its head. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be a challenge, but I take it as one, and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself silently weeping into my salad as the Thai lady who casually threw in twenty whole chilies watches me from across the room.
I learned the recipe behind this particular version in a cooking class with the wonderful Auntie Orn. We spent a day hanging out at her organic farm in Northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where she taught me how to modify a host of Thai dishes to suit a vegan diet. For a basic papaya salad, the omission of fish sauce is all that’s needed to make the recipe vegan, and the key to leaving it out is making sure that there’s still a depth to the combination of flavors that you’re using. The addition of sweet-but-tart tamarind to the typical chili, sugar, salt and lime flavor combination gives this recipe a lovely complexity. The tamarind juice is made by soaking fresh tamarind in warm water for around ten minutes, but if you can’t get ripe tamarind pods it’s fairly easy to find jars of tamarind paste, or even blocks of tamarind pulp, which you can use in the same way.
The other key ingredient that may be difficult to find if you don’t happen to be living in a tropical paradise is the papaya itself, but you can easily substitute it with a combination of raw carrot, cucumber, and/or zucchini. The green papaya that the salad calls for is just the unripe version of the fruit. Unlike the soft, mild sweetness of the ripe pinky-orange fruit, green papaya has a firm, spongey texture and doesn’t taste much like anything, making it the perfect base to soak up all the other flavours. It holds its texture well so will survive a pound in the mortar and pestle, but it gets a bit soggy if left soaking in juices for too long, so this salad is best made close to serving time. (Luckily it takes all of ten minutes to make.)
SOM TAM (THAI PAPAYA SALAD RECIPE)
(Serves 2, as a side dish)
- 50 g shredded green papaya (or carrot, cucumber, and/or zucchini)
- 1/2 cup snake beans (or other green bean), chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 1 large tomato, cut into chunks
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1-3 bird eye chilies (or more or less, depending on your chilli limit)
- 1 tablespoon palm sugar (or other sweetener of choice)
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 3 tablespoons tamarind juice
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons peanuts, plus another handful to garnish
- Pound the garlic, whole chilies and snake beans with a mortar and pestle.
- Add palm sugar, lime, tamarind juice, salt and peanuts, and pound gently until the sugar has dissolved.
- Mix through the fresh papaya and tomato with enough force to tenderize the vegetables and incorporate the flavors (but without grinding everything to a pulp).
- Plate the salad with another sprinkle of peanuts on top.
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