Fresh and Light: Spicy Green Papaya Salad

We’re not quite there yet, but soon the apartment-dwellers of New York will shudder to think of turning on the oven. The air will be thick with humidity, and we’ll rely on our little grill, big salads, and the numbers for delivery food we’ve saved in our phones.

When that happens, I’m betting this fresh green papaya salad will make frequent appearances on our table. There’s no cooking required (though you could throw a little grilled meat on top if you wanted to turn it into a full meal) and it’s satisfying, filling and refreshing. This would be a fabulous thing to bring to a barbecue, and can certainly be made and chilled a few hours ahead.

I scored two big unripe green papayas in Chinatown, but we ended up only using one, and it still created a giant bowl of salad with plenty of leftovers for lunch. In the Thai grocery where I picked up a container of fragrant palm sugar, a little package of searingly hot Thai chilis, and some nice-looking dried shrimp, the manager made sure I didn’t leave without one of these shredding tools, for which I am grateful. Reducing the papaya to an even, delicate julienne with this little peeler was a breeze. Though I wonder if they use a food processor in restaurants.

The recipe, adapted from Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, OR as printed in the June issue of Food and Wine makes a pretty authentic-tasting dish. You can adjust the chilis to your liking: we used three for a mild burning sensation, though you could go up to four if you’re really a chili fiend. Those little suckers are HOT, so stick to one or two if you’re sensitive. We felt like the dressing could have been just a touch more lime-y—perhaps a pounded kaffir lime leaf would help? Or a shaving of lime zest? I’ve noted to try that below.

I love food magazines (I wouldn’t need to say this out loud if I knew you’d seen our coffee table, piled with stacks of glossies and cut-out recipes stuck into binders) but something struck me as I prepared this dish. Why has it taken so long for a food magazine to feature this very basic preparation? This isn’t a newfangled fancy spin on a classic, it’s just a standard version of a Thai classic. Readers of Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Martha Stewart’s publications, etc, get a million variations on chicken, pasta, etc, but I would wager that many American cooks have never made green papaya salad, even if the ingredients have long been available in Asian markets (and even standard suburban grocery stores). 

I’m glad the glossies are finally listing authentic ingredients in their recipes, and I’m glad to find more variety in the recipe sections, but I think we’ve been underestimated for a long time. We want the real stuff! Don’t tell us to use sherry when we really need to find Shaoxing wine! We are not afraid of fish sauce! (Well, most of us aren’t, anyway, except my father, who is convinced that he doesn’t like it. I’d definitley still serve this tasty salad to him, though, and just keep the fish sauce a little secret between you and me. Deal?)

Spicy Green Papaya Salad
Adapted from Andy Richer at Pok Pok, in Food and Wine

6 medium dried shrimp
One 1-1/2 pound green papaya
3 small Thai chilies, coarsely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup palm sugar
1/4 pound green beans, cut in halves or thirds
two limes
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 dozen cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup coarsely chopped roasted, salted peanuts
1 handful Thai basil for serving.

1. In a small bowl, cover the dried shrimp with hot water and let stand for a few minutes. Drain and cut the shrimp into thirds.

2. Halve the papaya crosswise and peel the skin. Scrape out and remove seeds. Using a mandoline or Kiwi shredder, julienne the flesh and place in large serving bowl.

3. In a large mortar, pound the chilies with the garlic until a paste is formed. Add the sugar and shrimp and pound until blended. Zest one of the limes and juice both into the mortar, then add fish sauce.

4. If your mortar is big enough, add tomatoes and green beans and pound slightly. If not, add them to serving bowl with papaya. Add contents of mortar and toss well, pounding slightly. Let absorb dressing for five minutes. Add half the peanuts and toss.

5. Serve salad garnished with torn Thai basil and additional peanuts. Add a small amount of salt to brighten the flavors if needed.

Serve papaya salad with grilled meat or seafood for a complete meal.

In asian, salad

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