Papaya Salad (Som Tam)

I’m a fraud. I tell people I’m vegetarian but I still eat fish sauce, and I probably always will. I just can’t imagine the rest of my life without eating things like this salad, and they would NOT be the same without that pungent liquid that so many people can’t stand.

I wasn’t always so into fish sauce. The first time we went to Thailand, the smell was so overpowering I swore I’d never eat anything that contained it. But then I realized that the flavor it adds just can’t be matched. Yes, it stinks and it is pretty in-your-face fishy, but in small doses it’s downright close to perfection.

Besides, I gave up meat because I hate all the hormones and drugs and inhumane factory farming practices that seem to be rampant in this country. I realize fish products aren’t entirely without controversy, but I’m okay with being 99% vegetarian. If I ever find vegetarian fish sauce (I know it’s out there) I’ll probably try it, but in the mean time, I’m just going to stick to my slightly fraudulent proclamation of vegetarianism. (And no, I won’t call myself pescatarian because I don’t eat fish. Just fish sauce.)

I think I ate this stuff just about every day when we were in Thailand. There’s just something so alluring about the fresh crunch of the green papaya, the hot-salty-sour-sweet dressing, and the cool smoothness of tomato that I will never get tired of. I like to make it so spicy it brings tears to my eyes, but you can definitely scale way back on the chiles. This is one of those recipes that can be tweaked so it’s just how you like it – taste as you go and adjust the fish sauce, lime, and sugar accordingly.

I make mine in a large wooden mortar and pestle that we brought back from Thailand, and I definitely think that’s the best way to do it, but I’ve given directions for people who don’t have one, because they aren’t exactly a common sight in most American kitchens (and they take up a ridiculous amount of counter space). I think palm sugar (which you can find in little round cakes in Asian grocery stores) is best – just whack away at the little cake with a cleaver til you have about 1 tbsp – but of course white sugar is an acceptable substitute.

If you have a box grater, that should work to shred the green papaya. If you want to be just like the lady that made the best papaya salad I ever had (in Bangkok), use a cleaver in your right hand while holding the papaya in your left (I don’t know how she still has all her fingers). If you can find one of these, buy it immediately; it’s my favorite way to create long, even pieces:

Recipe:
2 cloves garlic
as many Thai chiles as you like (substitue: a serrano or two)
1 tbsp palm sugar (substitute: granulated sugar)
1/2 lime
10 green beans, cut into 1″ lenghts
1 roma tomato, diced
3 cups shredded green papaya
1-2 tbsp fish sauce (essential!)
2 tbsp chopped peanuts

If you have a large wood mortar and pestle: Cut the 1/2 lime into about eight pieces. Mash the garlic, chiles, lime, and sugar together until nicely mixed. Add the green beans and tomatoes, and mash a few more times. Stir in the green papaya and fish sauce, and pound about a dozen more times, stirring in between so everything is mixed well. Taste and adjust seasonings, then serve topped with chopped peanuts. (You can remove the lime peels if you want, or people can just eat around them)

If you don’t have a large wood mortar and pestle: Juice the 1/2 lime. Finely chop the chiles and garlic and mix with the sugar. Stir in the lime juice and fish sauce and set aside. Toss the shredded papaya with the green beans and tomatoes, then add the lime juice mixture and toss well. Taste and adjust seasonings, then serve topped with chopped peanuts.

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