Lao Green Papaya Salad – Som Tam – dtam mak huhng – tam maak hoong

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Papaya salad in Laos and is always made with paa-dek. It is also a dish of huge popularity in Thailand, particularly in the Northeast, where it has many incarnations, according to the preference of the chef. It can be made with fish sauce instead of paa-dek or shrimp paste and sometimes with added ingredients such as dried prawns, crab, tamarind, chopped green beans and often, sugar. In Laos, I found it tended to be made simply, with unripe green papaya, lime, paa-dek (see directions at the end of the recipe) and no sugar, but it is a recipe that is constantly evolving. In Vientiane, a sour fruit, Mak Kaw (hog plum, a small orange fruit sometimes available in Asian stores) was a popular addition. The dish should be juicy and taste hot, sour, salty, sweet and garlicy with a hint of the piscine. It is very refreshing with a Lao Beer.

Living in the middle of the Dartmoor wilderness, green papayas are hard to find, these were a little on the pink side but hard and sour enough for this dish. Hog fruit? Impossible to find sadly.

Green Papaya Salad

2-6 birdseye chillies

2-4 small cloves of garlic, peeled

a pinch of salt

1 green papaya, skinned and shredded into matchstick thin strips

8 small cherry tomatoes cut into quarters

1 mak kaw fruit (Hog fruit, small round pips orangy flesh) very optional

3 tablespoons of paa-dek water or 1-3 tablespoosn tbspn or so of fish sauce

1 lime – juice of

10 salted peanuts, crushed (optional)

1/2 lime, cut into 8ths, leave the rind on.

Image 6Take a green unripe papaya and peel it with a vegetable peeler. To do this, place a dishcloth in one hand so the fruit does not slip and place the papaya on top of it in your palm. With the other hand use a cleaver or heavy chopping knife to chop at the flesh leaving many roughly parallel cuts.

Image 7 Then cut under the slices from the chopped surface and you will end up with fine shreds. Alternatively, you can use a mandoline or buy a special shredding tool at oriental stores, as I have here.

Now take a pestle and mortar. Add the chilli, garlic and a pinch of salt and pound roughly (about 20 pounds) so the chilli is still in quite large pieces, not a paste.

Then add the papaya and pound gently using a spoon to turn the ingredients in on themselves.

Image 14Add the lime juice and paa-dek (instructions below) or fish sauce. Pound gently, a little more and then add the tomato and the Mak Kaw fruit. The tomato should just be bruised. Pound again and serve with lime wedges. You can add more lime or fish sauce to taste. I like to add a topping of salted peanuts too.

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Look up the English turnip version I was shown by my friend Soun in London in my book – Ant Egg Soup The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos – now out of print but available from me if you wish to buy a signed copy.

The famous Paa-Dek of Laos

Paa-dek is a condiment of fish chunks mixed with brine, rice dust and rice husks. These ingredients are fermented in large pottery jars for up to a year to produce a salty fishy sauce with a pungent aroma. This may sound a little off putting (remember, Westerners eat fermented mouldy milk in the form of cheese!) but the taste is very similar to preserved anchovy fillets. The mixture may be used straight; or the fish chunks are washed of their rice husks and used alone; or the liquid is used without the fish chunks. I often observed people pouring a ladle into a wok with another ladle of water, then watched them hard boil it for a minute, sieve the result and use the flavoured water. Here I have done the same, using a mini frying pan.

Heat the pan until it is hot.

Image 9Add the Paa-Dek lumps, heat for 20 seconds

Image 5Add ½ cup water, it will boil immediately, cook for about a minute (add a little more water if it looks too dry).

Image 13Seive into a bowl. Here I used a tea strainer and the result made about 2 tablespoons of Paa-dek water for my salad.Image 11

Mmm, yummy paa-dek!

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One thought on “Lao Green Papaya Salad – Som Tam – dtam mak huhng – tam maak hoong

  1. Great recipe and delicious looking serve. I like to use garlic in my papaya salad too. Some cooks don’t add it, but I like the sharp garlicky taste. Thanks for the advice on boiling the padaek too. 🙂

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