Listed in CNN Travel’s Top 50 Foods of the World, Green Papaya Salad is everything you know and love about South-East Asian salads. This Thai salad – called Som Tum – is a riot of fresh colours and crunchy textures, brought to life with a signature sour-sweet-savoury dressing spiked with a whack of fresh chilli. Now THIS is what I call a salad!!!
And … welcome to THAI WEEK!
Welcome to THAI WEEK
Every now and then, I like to do a recipe theme week. This week it’s THAI week, with three classic recipes to make your very own Thai feast at home:
Thai Yellow Curry – Made from scratch, this is flavour you literally cannot buy in a jar!
Green Papaya Salad (this recipe) – Great as side, yet substantial enough as a starter.
Dessert! Coming on Friday…..
Green Papaya Salad (Thai)
This is a salad that’s about as far as you can get from Western salads. No mayo! No oil in the dressing!
It’s a zingy and spicy cold salad made with green papaya, a fruit which might be unfamiliar to most Westerners. Green papaya is simply unripened papaya, and has a juicy and slightly crunchy texture with a neutral taste. More on green papaya below, including a surprise substitution option!
When shredded, flavour clings to the green papaya. The tangle of threads becomes the perfect vehicle for carrying the kaleidoscope of tastes in the dressing: sweetness from palm sugar, salty savouriness from the fish sauce and dried shrimp, fresh tang from lime, and fiery pungency from a generous one-two punch of garlic and chilli.
Varieties and background
Originating from Laos, variations of Green Papaya Salad can be found in countries across South-East Asia including Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Salads can include everything from dried beef to pickled crabs. Here in Australia, the Thai version – called som tum – is probably the most well known and most widely available. So that’s the version I’m sharing today.
What goes in Green Papaya Salad
Here’s what goes into the salad. The dressing ingredients are shown separately below.
This is literally unripened papaya fruit that is the shape and size of a melon. The texture of the inside is like potato. It’s firm but moist (though not starchy like potato), and ideal for shredding like we do for Green Papaya Salad.
The taste is faintly astringent but overall fairly bland. You wouldn’t eat it plain like other fruit because it doesn’t have enough flavour.
Even though it’s considered a fruit, it’s not sweet at all in its unripened state.
How it’s prepared – Peel using a standard vegetable peeler (the skin is quite soft). You might see the peel weep a white liquid, just wipe it off. Now cut papaya in half and remove the seeds using a spoon. Then finely shred into matchsticks using a julienning shredder, as pictured above.
Where to find it – This is a bit of a specialty ingredient. You can find it at some Asian grocery stores (Thai and Vietnamese are best), and sometimes (sometimes!) at Harris Farm Markets in NSW and Queensland.
Substitutes – The best substitute is green mango, another unripened fruit used in salads in Thai cuisine but also an ingredient that would need to be sourced from an Asian store!
In terms of readily accessible vegetables, nothing is quite the same as green papaya. However funnily enough, de-seeded and shredded telegraph / English cucumbers are the closest!
Named as such for its length, these are like very long green beans only a bit firmer and a bit more scraggly looking. Snake beans have the same texture and a similar flavour to ordinary green beans, which can be prepared in the same way.
For this particular recipe, the snake beans are used raw. They are cut into bite size lengths then pounded to soften and absorb the flavour of the dressing.
Find it at Harris Farms (NSW/QLD), some large grocery stores (Coles/Woolies) or Asian stores.
Substitute green beans / French beans.
Just every day cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes! Ordinary large tomatoes sliced up will work ok from a flavour perspective, but I’ve never seen them used in this salad.
Thai Basil tastes like normal basil with a stronger aniseed and slightly minty flavour. Nowadays it’s fairly widely available in Australia in large grocery stores and green grocers (Coles, Woolies, Harris Farms).
Best substitute for this recipe is coriander/cilantro. It brings a different flavour to this dish, but it’s not unheard of and the best alternative, in my opinion. The next best substitute is ordinary Italian basil.
What goes in Green Papaya Salad Dressing
Here’s what you need to make the dressing:
Dried shrimp – Found at Asian grocery stores, these are dried little shrimp. They are a key ingredient that are pounded and add a salty, shellfish umami to the Green Papaya Salad.
Can’t find it? If you skip the dried shrimp, you may find the dressing a bit one-dimensional. You can instead use the dressing in the Thai Beef Salad, which contains coriander to give it a boost. Quadruple it (ie. x 4)
Fish sauce – The other ingredient that adds depth and complexity to the dressing. Yes, it’s pungent straight out of the bottle, but it’s considerably diluted once mixed with everything else. If you substitute with soy sauce, you’ll find the dressing a bit lacklustre (in my opinion) so I really do urge you not to skip it. (If you’re really worried about it being strong, switch part of it with soy sauce).
Palm sugar – A sugar derived from palm trees, it’s a sweetener used widely in South-East Asian cooking that has a wonderful caramel flavour. Substitute with brown sugar.
Palm sugar comes in discs or in blocks, such as the cylindrical one pictured above. To ensure it dissolves easily into the dressing, it needs to be grated. I just use a standard box grater.
Limes – Fresh is the only way! If you don’t have fresh limes, I’d give this recipe a miss.
Garlic – Essential, for flavour!
Birds eye chilli – If you want the real deal, you can’t be shy with the chilli. The fact is, Green Papaya Salad IS spicy! Some are so screamingly spicy you’ll be banging your head against the table in agony. This one is not quite so brutal, but is still pretty high up on the spice-o-meter.
If you’re really concerned, feel free to dial it back to 1 chilli. If you skip it, you’ll have yourself a fine salad, but it’s not a Thai Green Papaya Salad!!
Peanuts – A good handful of peanuts is an essential part of the Green Papaya Salad experience. They’re mostly tossed through the salad as part of the dressing, some reserved for sprinkling.
How to make Green Papaya Salad
Traditionally, Green Papaya Salad is made in mortars that are large enough to hold the entire salad. The dressing ingredients are pounded first, followed by the remaining salad components.
The steps in this recipe have been adapted for everyday folk like myself who only have an ordinary-sized mortar and pestle. We pound the components separately and bring it all together in a plain old bowl!
1. How to make Green Papaya Salad Dressing
Garlic and chilli paste: Pound the garlic and chilli in the mortar first until it’s a paste.
Crush shrimp: Add shrimp and pound to crush them. No need to grind into a paste, just break them up.
Dressing liquids: Stir in palm sugar, lime and fish sauce until sugar dissolves – it only takes a 10 seconds or so.
Transfer Dressing into a large bowl. Now, we’ll use the mortar for other components of the salad.
2. How to make Green Papaya Salad
Once the dressing is done, it’s on to the salad components!
Bruise snake beans: The snake beans are used raw in this dish so they needed to be pounded to soften so they are easier to eat. It also makes them split open a bit so the dressing seeps inside, and the bean flavour oozes out.
Add snake beans to the mortar (in batches if needed), then use the pestle to pound them a bit so they bruise, split and soften.
Transfer to bowl: Now add them to the bowl with the Dressing. The dressing will further soften the beans given a little time. This is why we do them before the tomato and papaya.
Crush tomato: Grab handfuls of tomato, and lightly crush with your hands then add into the bowl.
Traditionally, the cherry tomatoes are lightly bruised in a giant mortar and pestle so they “meld” in with the salad better and absorb the dressing. Because this recipe is adapted for everyday home cooks with standard size mortar, I simply crush then lightly in my hands before dropping into a large bowl to toss with everything else.
Add papaya to the bowl. As with the cherry tomatoes, the papaya is traditionally very lightly bruised in a mortar and pestle with the dressing. But honestly, shredded papaya is so delicate anyway this step isn’t necessary. And in fact, you prolong the already short shelf life of this salad by NOT pounding the papaya!
Peanuts: Then add about 3/4 of the peanuts.
Toss: Working quickly, toss well with 2 wooden spoons or tongs. It’s important to work quickly once the papaya comes into contact with the Dressing because the papaya will start to wilt and leach water which dilutes the dressing.
Serving bowls: Transfer the salad into serving bowls. Pile it up nice and high for a good visual effect!
Garnish and serve: Spoon some dressing over the salad. There will be a bit of dressing still left in the bowl because the recipe needs quite a lot of dressing to ensure all the papaya gets coated nicely.
Garnish with Thai Basil leaves, sprinkle with remaining peanuts, then serve immediately.
How and what to serve with Green Papaya Salad
This is a salad that qualifies as a “meal salad” in my world, being one that you can eat in vast volumes as a meal. The extreme tastiness is a big factor here, as is the slaw-like form of the salad which makes it easy to devour large quantities with speed (wait, is that just me?).
A popular fixture of Thai menus here in Australia, you’ll see it offered as a side salad, as a starter or as a lunch salad. As part of Thai Week here at RecipeTin Eats (see top of post!), I’m offering this up as a refreshing side salad to accompany the Thai Yellow Curry I shared on Monday.
(You can easily refashion this into a main course by adding a protein. Try sliced medium-rare steak, barbecued chicken, pork, or seafood. I’d stick to fairly plain treatments, since the salad is not short on flavour as it is.)
For more side options, or starters to kick off your Thai feast, have a browse of my Thai recipe collection. Some suggestions for Thai starters:
Thai Fish Cakes – The secret is red curry paste!
Thai Lettuce Cups (Larb Gai)
To all my fellow lockdownees, I hope this inspires you for Thai night … IN! I’ll be back Friday to serve you up dessert! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
Thai Green Papaya Salad (Som Tum)
Different method. Same result!
Like all good Thai food, the taste of the finished dish should be a balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy. The lime brings zing, palm sugar adds sweetness, while the fish sauce and dried shrimp lend deep savouriness and complexity.
For a truly authentic experience, be brave and don’t skimp on the chilli. Green Papaya Salad is MEANT to be spicy!
- 2 tbsp garlic , roughly chopped (10 normal or 4 large garlic cloves)
- 6 bird eye chillies, , roughly chopped with seeds (use fewer for less spicy, Note 1)
- 6 tbsp dried shrimp (Note 2)
- 1 cup palm sugar , grated using standard box grater, loosely packed (Note 3)
- 1/2 cup lime juice
- 1/2 cup fish sauce
Green Papaya Salad:
- 1 cup roasted peanuts , unsalted
- 20 snake beans , cut in 5cm/2″ pieces (raw, Note 4)
- 3 cups grape tomato , cut in half (~400g / 14oz)
- 500g / 4 cups green papaya , shredded, TIGHTLY packed cups (~1 medium, 2/3 large, Note 5)
- 1/2 cup Thai basil leaves (Note 6)
Crush peanuts: Place peanuts in a mortar and pestle. Pound lightly to break them up into largish pieces, not into powder. Transfer to bowl.
Garlic and chilli paste: Place garlic and chilli in the mortar. Pound into a paste. Add shrimp and pound to crush them – no need to grind them to a paste.
Dressing: Stir in palm sugar, lime and fish sauce until sugar dissolves. Pour Dressing into a large bowl.
Bruise snake beans: Add snake beans to mortar (in batches if needed). Pound to bruise, split and soften (they are raw, so they need to be bashed to soften). Add to Dressing.
Crush tomato: Grab handfuls of tomato, crush with your hands then add into the bowl.
Add papaya: Add papaya and 3/4 of the peanuts. Toss well with 2 wooden spoons or tongs.
Serve immediately (Note 7): Once everything is coated in Dressing, immediately pile up onto plates. Spoon over some dressing (there will be a bit of dressing still left in the bowl, that’s normal). Garnish with Thai basil leaves, sprinkle with remaining peanuts. Serve immediately (Note 7).
2. Dried shrimp – Small shrimp that are sun-dried, they are an ingredient used in Asian cooking to add savoury flavour. It tastes like concentrated shrimp (prawns). Sold at Asian grocery stores (small, light packet, not refrigerated, so suitable for online order).
Can’t find it? If you skip the dried shrimp, you may find this dressing a bit one-dimensional. You can instead use the dressing in the Thai Beef Salad, which contains coriander to give it a boost. Quadruple it (ie. x 4)
3. Palm sugar – Sugar extracted from palm trees that has a wonderful caramel flavour. It comes in blocks, and needs to be grated using a box grater so it will dissolve into the dressing. Sold at large grocery stores in Australia (Coles, Woolies, Harris Farms) and Asian stores.
Grating – Hardness of blocks differ. If you have a really hard one, it will require some effort to grate. But persist! It’s doable! (I’m not exactly a gym junkie, and I can grate it fine )
Substitute – Brown sugar.
4. Snake beans – Long beans that are a bit harder than ordinary green beans. Used raw in this dish, so it’s bruised to soften. Substitute green beans / French beans.
5. Green papaya – Unripened papaya. Find it at Thai or Vietnamese grocery stores, and sometimes Harris Farms in NSW and QLD (Aust).
Size – They come in various sizes. The one pictured is medium size, about 18cm / 7″ wide.
To prepare, peel the dark green skin off using a standard vegetable peeler (the skin is quite soft), then cut in half and remove the seeds using a spoon. Now finely shred using a julienne shredder, as pictured in post and in the video.
Subs – The best substitute is green mango, another unripened fruit used in salads in Thai cuisine but also an ingredient that would need to be sourced from an Asian store! Prepare and use in the same way.
The most similar readily accessible vegetable I can think of is telegraph / English cucumbers (the long ones), which are less watery than Lebanese cucumbers (shorter ones). Peel, scoop out and discard watery flesh, finely julienne the firm part. It will be slightly softer but similar in flavour and texture once dressed.
Alternatively, just use 4 very packed cups of finely shredded cabbage (wombok/Chinese cabbage or regular). It’s a different texture but it will still be extremely delicious and will have a similar “slaw-like” texture!
6. Thai Basil – It tastes like normal basil with a hint of aniseed and minty flavour. Nowadays it’s fairly widely available in Australia in large grocery stores (Coles, Woolies, Harris Farms), as well as Asian stores.
Best substitute: Coriander/cilantro. It brings a different flavour, but it’s on-theme and the best alternative, in my opinion. The next best substitute is ordinary Italian basil.
7. Serve immediately – This is important because the green papaya continues to wilt and leach liquid. This will dilute the flavour of the Dressing and the green papaya goes soggy.
Make ahead – You can make the salad ahead by preparing all the raw ingredients undressed. Shredded papaya keeps extremely well in an airtight zip-lock bag in the fridge for days, with no discolouration or degradation of quality.
Watch how to make it
Life of Dozer
Yes, Dozer. This entire Flan Pâtissier is for you, not for the builders at our home. I’m going to put it down on the ground and you can devour the whole thing, all by yourself. (Dream on Dozer. Dream on.)