The green papaya salad is popular everywhere in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand. There is a science to making a good papaya salad ! Here is how we prepare it at home. Ready ? Let's get started.
a clay mortar, a wooden pestle and a spoon.
Ingredients for one mid-size mortar (5 people):
- A small green papaya about 1 pound (lahung)
- 2 bird’s eyes chilies (m’teh)
- 1 clove of garlic skin on (kteum sor)
- 2 teaspoons of palm sugar (skor thnaot)
- 1 teaspoon of tamarind (ampil tum)
- 1 teaspoon of shrimp paste (kapi)
- 2 table spoons of fish sauce (teuk trey)
- 2-3 pieces of fermented anchovies / 1 tablespoon if liquid (prahok)
- 3 wedges of Key lime (Citrus aurantiifolia) (3 wedges)
- 1 ripe tomato or 8-10 cherry tomotoes
- 2 small eggplants (Solanum xanthocarpum)
- 4-5 small salted paddy crabs (kdam prey)
- If you wish: 1 tablespoon of dried shrimps; 2 tablespoons of grossly crushed roasted peanuts
All these ingredients are available in Asian supermarkets.
1) Selection of the papaya
Select one that is very firm, unripe with shiny green peel as if it was freshly picked. I like to choose the ones with some strays of whiter sections on the papaya. If the papaya is harvested too young the taste can be bitter; if it starts to ripe, the texture is softer and the taste sweet (some like it when a bit ripe). The papaya should be at room temperature so remove the papaya from the fridge in the morning so it is ready for lunch.
2) How to sliver the papaya
The papaya should be thinly slivered. Be cautious, if it is too thin, the papaya will be watery when mixed; if too thick, the papaya does absorb the sauce (that’s why we don’t use mandolin).
How to sliver the papaya: Peel the papaya, cut the bottom, clean in fresh water. With a long knife, make many long cuts into the flesh of the papaya on the long edge; then sliver the papaya with the Kiwi brand shredder. Turn the papaya as you shred. When you get closer to the center, you will see the white immature seeds inside. Stop, cut into one side to remove the seeds and discard any seeds that got into your bowl. Be sure to remove the seeds as they are bitter to eat. Move onto another part of the papaya. Don’t make the shreds too long so it is easy to eat and aesthetically more appealing. In our home, we don’t soak the shredded papaya in cold water as it makes the salad mix watery. We never use machines, food processors or graters, it is ruining the recipe for sure.
3) select well the lime (key lime)
When selecting the lime, look for a plum, green, juicy lime. Too young, the lime tastes bitter. If the skin is too thick or the lime too hard, probably, there isn’t much juice and the taste will be bitter. It is said that when you roll the lime before cutting it, it will render more juice but I found the taste bitter.
Prepare the ingredients
4) Slice: the tomato, the eggplant into thin wedges. For cherry tomatoes, cut them in half, or quarter if very large. Cut the lime in 4 wedges. We may need only 3 pieces.
5) The paste: my mom puts directly the tamarind, shrimp paste, palm sugar and anchovy in the mortar. It may not be easy to mix them so I prefer to melt the four ingredients in boiled water (about 3 teaspoons of water in a small pan at low heat). This makes it easier to mix these with the salad.
6) The salted paddy crabs: if they are small, you can use as one piece. If they are large, discard the carapace and cut in 4 pieces (2 large crabs are then enough).
As you can see, we prepare everything before the final step: Pok Pok time !
7) Pok Pok time: Pounding all the ingredients in the clay mortar.
- Take the chilies, the garlic with skin on and If you like dried shrimps, add the shrimps. Give them a gentle bash with mortar and pestle. You still ought to see bits and pieces, not a puree.
- Add the papaya (up to 9/10 of the mortar) and put about ¾ of the ingredients on top of it (sugar palm, fish sauce, the paste, 3 wedges of lime). To add more lime flavor, one of the wedges will be pounded along with the papaya. Lightly bash the papaya in using a spoon to help shift the ingredients. Add the tomato and eggplant, pound lightly, just to release the juice.
- Use the pestle to barely bruise the papaya and to push the mixture up in the mortar and the spoon to push it down so that the mixture is mixed well. The pestle / pounding is at a slight angle, not directly up-and-down. It is about essentially tossing the papaya and all the other ingredients as you pound. Do not smash the papaya. It should remain crisp. The pounding should be swift – about 2-3 minutes. If you pok pok too much, the papaya becomes watery and chewy. You want the papaya to remain crunchy, but well mixed.
- Taste-test the salad for a balance of spicy, salty, sour and sweet flavors. The dressing should taste sweet and sour with tones of spicy and sophistically salty (coming from the mix of shrimp paste, fermented anchovies and salted crabs). If you'd prefer it saltier, add more fish sauce. If you prefer it sweeter, add some sugar. If too sweet, add another squeeze of lime juice or too salty for your taste, more shredded papaya (this one is tricky as additional bashing may ruin the salad, do it quick and lightly!).
- add the small crabs and mix quickly just one more time. The crabs should crack but not be pulverized! At home, we usually do not put it before because they are salty so can waste the preparation.
Serve in a large dish. Thai way, you can sprinkle with dried shrimps and crushed peanuts.
- serve with side vegetables such as morning glory, a sliver of cabbage, cilantro and crispy pork skin. Enjoy the "Bok Lahung" !
What’s the difference between Lao, Thai and Cambodian papaya salad?
- Thai “Som Tam” is sweeter to the taste (really sweet) with crushed grilled peanuts, less anchovy sauce (pla raa)
- Lao Style “Tam Som / Tam Mak Hung” does not use peanuts, it is not sweet, the taste is stronger / saltier as they use more fermented sauce (padaek) and at times salted crabs.
- Cambodian style “Bok Lahung” mixes morning glory and papaya. There is also a systematic use of salted crabs. The taste of the fermented fish sauce (prahok) is also different.
- You can also do the papaya salad with glass noodles, instant noodles (mi Mama) or steamed vegetables. In this case, starts to mix the green papaya first. Once the sauce is well mixed (make the sauce stronger in flavor), add the cooked noodles and adjust the taste.
- You can also replace the papaya by long beans, cucumbers, green mangoes, amarella, carrots, even green apple!