While green papaya may seem a world apart from the tender orange tropical fruit we all know, green papayas aren’t a different species of papaya. They’re simply immature papayas that have not yet begun to ripen. When green, they have white flesh, a neutral flavor and crunchy carrot-like texture making them perfect for salads like this Som Tam (ส้มตำ)
While green papaya is eaten in salads across Southeast Asia, each region has it’s own version. In Thailand green papaya salad is called Som Tam and is made with a giant mortar and pestle. Garlic and chilies are first crushed to release their flavors. Then, long beans, dried shrimp and peanuts are added and crushed. This not only tenderizes them, but it also helps them absorb more dressing. Finally the tomatoes, shredded papaya and dressing go in and get mixed together.
To replicate this without the mortar and pestle, I do a couple things differently. First, I add the garlic and chilies to the dressing and puree it in a food processor or blender. If you can’t tolerate a lot of heat, it might be best to leave them out or to scrape out the seeds and white membranes first to reduce the heat. Next, I pound the green beans(or long beans if you can find them) and dried shrimp using a mallet or meat tenderizer. Finally, all the ingredients go into a bowl and get tossed together.
The resulting salad is a sweet, sour, spicy and savory medley of tastes, with crunchy, crisp, chewy and tender textures which make it a lot of fun to eat, especially on a hot summer day when your appetite has gone into hibernation.
When you’re choosing a green papaya, it’s important that you get one that is very green. Look for ones with smooth uniformly vibrant green skin that don’t give when pressed with your thumb. If it’s pale green or has a hint of yellow on the skin, chances are it’s already started to ripen.
Because the shredded papaya tends to get soggy if you let it sit, it’s best to eat the salad as soon as you dress it. If you’re not planning on eating it right away, prepare everything ahead of time, and keep the vegetables separate from the dressing in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it.
If you’re vegan, you can just leave out the dried shrimp and substitute white soy sauce for the fish sauce.
- Put the fish sauce, lime juice, chiles, garlic and palm sugar in a blender or small food processor. Puree the mixture. You can also mince the chiles and grate the garlic and whisk the dressing together.
- Peel the papaya and slice it in half. Use a spoon to scoop out the white seeds and pith from the center.
- Shred the papaya using a mandoline or a papaya shredder into a large bowl.
- Pound the green beans and dried shrimp with a mallet to tenderize.
- Add the green beans, dried shrimp, tomatoes, peanuts, and cilantro.
- Pour the dressing on top and toss to coat.