As I pulled into my parents drive, I eyed a papaya in their front garden that was just starting to get its yellow colour. Perfect. The perfect kind of papaya needed for som tam (thai papaya salad), mostly green, and a little yellow.
If you love som tam as much as I do, you already know what you’re missing if you’re not munching on this delicious dish at this very moment! This dish is one of my mum’s specialties, and like most of her dishes go, they’re not hard to make, you just need to follow your taste buds!
tomatoes chopped into wedges
2-3 garlic cloves
palm sugar (don’t stress if you don’t have any, just use whatever sugar you have)
1 lemon or lime juice
To bulk up the dish, you can add grated carrots, finely chopped white cabbage, and/or green beans. You may have noticed that I haven’t included fish sauce in the ingredients list. While the typical recipe uses this sauce, a simple alternative that doesn’t compromise the delicious reputation of the dish is to simply use salt. Using salt instead of fish sauce is also a bonus for those that don’t like the smell.
It’s really important to use the right papaya. If it’s too ripe the dish will be a flop. You need a green papaya that has a slight yellow colour on the skin. The papaya shouldn’t be sweet – this is a sign that it has ripened, and should be eaten like a fruit instead of an ingredient for this salad.
First, peel the papaya and grate as much flesh as you can. The easiest way to hand grate is to use a grater that is attached to a hand peeler. If you don’t have one, just cut the papaya into pieces that are easy for you to handle.
Add the garlic, chilli and sugar (about a tablespoon) to the pestle and mortar. I start with 2 garlic cloves, and 1-2 chillies depending on how hot and big they are. This dish is known for being spicy, but you decide how hot you want it to be. Crush all the ingredients together so they loose their shape.
Once you’ve managed to get as much papaya into the mortar, add a few pinches of salt and the juice of a small lemon. Mix it again with the pestle.
Give it a taste test to see what’s lacking. Try and balance out the flavours between sweet, salty, and sour.
Eat the salad straight away while it’s still fresh and crunchy. Garnish with some freshly roasted peanuts, and serve with sticky rice (my favourite combination), normal rice, or vermicelli rice noodles.