Sunday, January 15, 2012

som tum - thai green papaya salad

this salad is one of my very favorite thai foods of all time, even though i normally hate papaya. fresh papaya is easily the worst-tasting fruit i have ever had. it should be banned from polite society. NEVER SMELL IT you will be so sorry you did.

i probably would never have even ordered this if i hadn't somehow gotten it into my head that it was made with green mango, which seemed fine to me. mango, after all, is not manufactured somewhere in the depths of hades.

by the time i realized my mistake, it was too late. not wanting to waste food, i figured i'd at least try it. i was surprised to discover that it was delicious - fiery, salty, sweet, and sour in all the very best ways. plus peanuts! papaya haters, don't let the terrible evil taste of the fresh stuff put you off - this doesn't taste anything like that.

it snowed today in portland. it was lovely, but it quickly melted. now it's plain old slushy and cold. although it might seem like perfect weather for something roasty or stewy, the bright crisp flavors of this salad made it seem a little warmer and more cheery.

i found the papaya at an asian market near our house. it was kind of a monster - it weighed like 2 1/2 pounds. i only ended up using half of it in the salad. i'm not sure what to do with the other half - wikipedia says it has lots of pectin - maybe a jam?

anyway, go ahead and peel the thing. it's pretty easy to peel - much easier than, say, a butternut squash.

cut it in half lengthwise, then admire the strange beauty of its seeds.

the seeds are edible, if somewhat odd. mike described them as tasting "kind of like mustard . . . and maybe burning plastic" but added that they were not unpleasant. i thought they tasted kind of like nasturtium - kind of peppery-mustardy-planty. i'm not sure what i'll do with these, but i found a recipe for a dressing that uses them and sounds kind of good.

now you can mix up the other salad ingredients and the dressing. i made quite a bit of dressing, because i like to eat the salad with rice so it's nice to have some extra dressing to soak into the rice a little. you could always dial down the proportions if you want it a little drier.

in a large bowl, mix 1/4 cup of turbinado or (more authentic) palm sugar, 1/4 cup (or a little less - it's strong) fish sauce, and the juice of one lime (around 1/4 cup).

mince/smash/grind one large clove of garlic. it would probably actually be a good idea to put a little sugar on the cutting board with the garlic - the crystals make it easier to grind the garlic up. here is a video by someone's grandpa to show you how to make it into kind of a paste.

add about 5 or 6 chopped scallions. i like to cut them on the bias a little because FANCY.

then you need some peppers. thai bird chilies are more traditional, but i used one of these red fresno ones, which was not hot, and one large jalapeño, which was middling hot.

slice them each pretty thinly. this salad is supposed to be quite spicy, so feel free to amp it up with some serranos or the like instead. i ended up putting in a few shakes of dried red pepper flakes as well.

the other two vegetables you need are green beans and tomatoes. long beans are traditional, green beans are totally fine, and haricots verts are delicious as well. i had some good frozen haricots verts at hand, so i thawed them and cooked them for a minute or so in a pan with a little shake of salt - just enough so that they weren't raw anymore.

i used halved grape tomatoes, but cherry ones would be fine also. there aren't a lot of good larger tomatoes around at this time of year, but in the summer some of the good heirloom ones would be aces in this.

mix the dressing, sliced peppers, scallions, garlic, beans, and tomatoes, then use a mandoline or julienne peeler to break down the papaya. i used a mandoline and it was a bit of a pain because the papaya is fairly unwieldy, but it isn't impossible by any means. if you have a peeler that juliennes, that is probably going to be easier. or you can grate it, but it won't be as pretty.

add the papaya and a handful of chopped cilantro to the bowl and you're basically done. it's good to make it a little bit before you want to eat it - i would let it sit for at least half an hour or so.

when you're just about to eat, top it with some roughly chopped roasted, salted peanuts. you don't want to put them on too early because they will get soggy and unattractive.

ta da! a little bit of southeast asia in the cold and wet northwest. this is so refreshing and delicious - you can eat it on its own or with some rice. it would be good alongside some tofu or with a hard-boiled egg or perfect as an accompaniment to fish sauce drumsticks.

it may seem like a lot of stuff, but it's mainly just a bit of prep and it's totally, totally worth it.

1 small or 1/2 large papaya (about 1 - 1 1/2 pounds is probably good)
3/4 - 1 cup lightly cooked green beans, haricots verts, or long beans
12-15 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 - 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 chili peppers, sliced (jalapeño, serrano, or thai - to taste)
5-6 scallions, sliced
1/3 - 1/2 cup roasted, salted peanuts

1 garlic clove, minced/smashed into paste
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 - 1/3 cup turbinado, palm or regular cane sugar (+ more, to taste - i actually added another two tablespoons of regular sugar to the 1/4 cup turbinado because i ran out of turbinado and wanted it to be a little more sweet)
juice of 1 lime (~1/4 cup)
dried red chili flakes, to taste (may not be necessary - it depends on how hot your peppers are)

listening to: beach house, blouse (this video is crazy!), air


  1. I have a crush on your kitchen table. The blue design is so beautiful. And this dish looks amazing.

  2. thanks! it is a pretty sweet table. it also has some sparkly blue vinyl chairs that came with it. craiglist is #1!