One of the national dishes of Thailand – Som Tom – Green Papaya Salad. Easy to make and full of flavors. A perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy! Gluten-Free and can be made vegan.
Thai food seems to be a problem for Dave. You see the Thais love their food spicy, but unfortunately Dave does not. Even though the level of spice added to Thai dishes made for westerners is considered “baby” it’s still too much for Dave.
One of the cooking instructors, Mai, at the Time for Lime cooking school in Koh Lanta said that Thais love their papaya salad with 10+ birds eye chilis, and for me just 1 is plenty (and for Dave more like 0). Luckily Pad Thai naturally is never made spicy so that is a standard dish for Dave to order.
It’s crazy. Mai’s 5 year old daughter is at the same exact spice level I am (and well beyond Dave’s), and her spice level will keep getting built up with time until she can handle more than 10 chilies per dish.
While in the Western world papaya is known more as a sweet orange fruit diced up into cubes when ripe, here in Thailand it is most famous in it’s unripe green form.
Shredded green papaya is the star ingredient of one of the country’s national dishes – Tom Som – green papaya salad.
In Thailand sugar is added to many dishes, not so much to make them sweet, but rather to bring out the flavors of some of the other ingredients. In this dish we get the sweet from the palm sugar, salty from fish sauce, sour from fresh lime juice and spicy from fresh bird’s eye chili.
The papaya salad is traditionally made in a wooden mortar (stone is too hard and will crush the ingredients) and the maker is armed with pestle in one hand and spoon in the other to gently crush and mix up all the ingredients, releasing their flavors. It is not uncommon to see the vendor taste a spoonful of the sauce, making sure the balance is just right.
At the end of the day though it all depends on your preference. Many times in a Thai restaurant there will be a tray with 4 containers at the table for you to personally adjust the level of sweet (sugar), spicy (crushed red pepper flakes), sour (rice vinegar with sliced red chili) and salty (fish sauce) that you like in your dish.
Personally I love the green papaya salad. It’s fresh, crisp and just perfect on a hot and humid day. I prefer mine with just one chili (per serving) though but I’ll let you decide how spicy you like yours.
- For the sauce:
- 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 4 tablespoons fish sauce (substitute soy sauce for vegetarian or vegan version)
- 1.5 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
- For the salad:
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 2 tablespoons dried shrimp (omit for vegetarian or vegan version)
- 3-4 red bird's eye chilies
- 3 tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 4 long beans or asparagus, cut into 2 inch segments
- 10 ounces unripe papaya, peeled and shredded
- 1 carrot, peeled and shredded
- 5 tablespoons unsalted peanuts
- To make the sauce combine fish sauce, lime juice and sugar in a bowl. Mix until sugar has dissolved. Taste and adjust if needed.
- To a wooden mortar add shrimp, garlic and chilis and start to lightly pound.
- Add tomatoes and continue to lightly pound.
- Add long beans and pound a few times.
- Add sauce, papaya, carrot and peanuts. Carefully pound with the spoon in the other hands so as not to make the papaya mushy.
- Taste and adjust flavors with additional fish sauce, lime juice or sugar if necessary