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Recipe: Thai Papaya Salad

Recipe: Thai Papaya Salad

It’s officially summer in Hong Kong and with beach season and junk boat trips comes 100-degree heat with 100 percent humidity. IT’S HOT. So hot, in fact, that my new weekend activity involves long trips to the mall just so I can walk in large, air-conditioned spaces. I can’t really spend more than 15 minutes outside without having a literal meltdown. I’ve also come to realize just how unnecessary it would be to have an oven at home. When it’s this hot out (and it’s 80 degrees plus for about half the year), I can barely justify using a toaster let alone turning an oven to 350 degrees.

So the season has ushered in a new phase of eating for me — bowls of hot noodles and baskets of steamed dumplings aren't as appealing at the moment since the last thing I want to eat is something hot. Instead, I’ve been choosing to eat every type of cold dish I can find — and in Asian cuisines, there are plenty of delicious options to choose from. My go-to lunch at the moment: Thai Papaya Salad.

Papaya salad is one of the most popular street foods in Bangkok for good reason: It’s easy to make, packed with flavor and exactly the kind of food you want to eat in unbearable heat — something that’s light, fresh and loaded with sweet citrusy goodness.

The best thing I ate while in Bangkok last year was papaya salad from a street food stall (and yes, I ate all the noodles and curries I could find too -- the salad still topped it all). There are a few different versions of papaya salad in Thailand, but the one I prefer most is the classic: sliced green papaya with tomatoes, Chinese long beans and peanuts tossed in a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and chili. Most fish sauce is made of anchovy extract with salt and sugar. Even if you don’t like anchovies, there’s a good chance you’ll still love fish sauce. And if you’re a fan of food from Southeast Asia, you’ve probably eaten lots of it already. It's time to start cooking with it, too.

The traditional recipe for papaya salad, called som tum, includes dried shrimp as well but my husband is kosher so I omit that ingredient and don’t miss it. The best thing about the dish is that it can taste as tangy or sweet as you like. And you can add any vegetable to it that your heart desires. 

In Hong Kong, it’s not difficult to find green papaya, which is simply a papaya that’s picked before it's ripe. It tastes dramatically different from ripe papaya. It’s available in the U.S. at Asian markets. If you have trouble finding it, replace the shredded green papaya with anything that you like: cabbage, celery, green apple, cucumber, carrots, bean sprouts. If you want it to taste close to the original, use a base that’s crisp and more neutral in flavor (cabbage or celery), or something that adds to the overall sweet and tangy flavor of the salad — like shredded carrots or green apple slices. 

Either way, when you think it’s too hot to deal, make this your go-to. There are lots of recipes for som tum online, from the NYTimes, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Thai Table — some use herbs, others use rice noodles or shrimp. After reviewing the above recipes, the exact combination of what I love most is below. It’s heavier on the peanuts and tomatoes and lighter on the chili peppers and fish sauce than some other recipes. But the point is to make it however you like, and eat it time and time again. Check out the video my husband and I made below (and make sure your volume is up so you can hear my husband's latest food-video composition).

Recipe (serves 4 but if I'm being honest, it serves 2 in my household)

  • 2 cups green papaya, shredded or julienned 
  • 10 grape tomatoes, halved 
  • 6-8 Chinese long beans cut into 5-inch pieces
  • 2-3 tablespoons peanuts, toasted and salted on the stovetop.
  • 1 lime, juiced, plus another half for garnish
  • 3 teaspoons fish sauce 
  • 1 Thai chili (add more if you like more heat)
  • 2 garlic cloves 
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • 1 pinch salt 
  • Mortar and pestle

Roughly chop the garlic and chili pepper. Place in mortar along with 1.5 tablespoon peanuts, sugar and salt. Pound into a paste. Add lime juice and fish sauce and mix. Add half the tomatoes and half the green beans and gently mix in. If your mortar is big enough, add the papaya and mix with a spoon. If not, transfer to a bowl and mix in the papaya. Top the salad with the remaining peanuts, tomatoes and long beans. Serve with half a lime. Squeeze the lime over the salad just before eating. 

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