My all-time favorite Thai salad is the Som Tam, or Green Papaya Salad. It is full-on Thai flavors in all their glory. Rich aromas, brilliant colors, sweet, sour, and hot all in one glorious mouthful. It is the essence of Thai street food … pure and unadulterated joy!
The Green Papaya
So what exactly is green papaya? A green papaya is not some special type of papaya. It is simply the unripe version of the regular papaya. Like the green mango, green papayas are not so easy to find in markets outside southeast Asia. But don’t let that stop you from making green papaya salad because I have found a couple of great substitutes.
My primary green papaya substitute is a fruit/vegetable called chayote, or christophene. The chayote originates in South America and belongs to the gourd family. It is crisp and fresh and like the green papaya it has a very mild flavor which will readily take on whatever flavor you throw at it, making it an ideal substitute for green papaya.
Another decent substitute is the jicama (pronounced HEE-kah-mah). Jicama is a member of the bean family but since it is the root that is consumed it is often treated like other root vegetables. Jicama is a crunchy root that has a nice snap to it. It is quite refreshing and not at all starchy. It tastes delicious when peeled and eaten raw, making it yet another good substitute for green papaya.
If the first two were unfamiliar to you then this third one will come as a relief. It is the common carrot. Although carrots have a bit of sweetness to them they make a good substitute for green papaya in this salad. They can be julienned just like you would the green papaya. Which brings me to my the next tip:
Whenever I make green papaya salad I make use of this little handy tool. It is a handheld julienne tool, the size of a potato peeler, which makes neat little even strips.
For those of you now sitting there with a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look: A julienne cut means cutting things into long thin strips.
If you do not have one of these handy tools you can julienne the papaya using a knife. Alternatively, you can use a mandolin or even the same device used to make spiralized zucchini, although this last tool works best with carrots.
The Green Beans
A classic Thai Green Papaya Salad uses raw snake beans. Where I currently live snake beans are not available, so I use whatever green beans I can find. But even if they were available, I’d still prefer to briefly steam my beans before mixing them in. This is because raw green beans, regardless of the type – and even if you allow for the fact that they get partly “cooked” by the pounding and the acidic dressing – can be tough on the stomach. Hence my preference to very lightly cook the beans first.
To Spice Or Not To Spice
When you order Green Papaya Salad in a Thai restaurant it can be very spicy. Making it at home allows you to control the degree of fire. In my recipe below I have specified 1 Bird’s Eye chili. The Bird’s Eye is a small but very spicy type of chili very common in Thai cooking. If you handle spice well feel free to add another one. Where I currently live the Bird’s Eye is a rare find and I find the other chilis available here to be hit or miss when it comes to spiciness. Because of this I have defaulted to using dried chili flakes. This is tantamount to treason from a Thai food perspective but beggars can’t be choosers. We adapt.
So there you have it. My version of Thai Green Papaya Salad – with or without the actual green papaya…
Thai Green Papaya Salad
Ingredients for the salad:
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 bird's eye chili or 1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes or to taste
- 2 tablespoons dry-roasted unsalted peanuts I use raw peanuts that I roast on a dry frying pan until lightly browned.
- 1 teaspoon palm sugar
- 1 ½ tablespoons Thai fish sauce (use soy sauce if on a vegan diet)
- 1 ½ tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 4 cherry tomatoes, quartered
- 1/2 cup lightly cooked green beans They should still be crunchy.
- 2 ½ cups (200 grams) green papaya or any of the substitutes mentioned above (chayote, jicama, carrot)
Ingredients to serve with the salad:
- Sliced white cabbage
- Slices of cucumber
- Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, chili, and peanuts into a rough paste.
- Stir in the sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice.
- Add the tomatoes and the cooked but still crunchy beans and continue to pound lightly while using a spoon to mix it all around.
- Add the green papaya (or substitute) and continue to pound and stir for 30 seconds or until everything is well mixed. Transfer to serving bowls and enjoy!