So there I was at work the other day (not blogging, my day job…) and in walks my new best friend Ai with a green papaya. Don’t you just love unexpected gifts of food? Ai had her mom pick one up for me after hearing me complain about how hard it was to find a good green papaya. As it turns out, it isn’t so hard to find one in San Jose. Not only did I get a beautiful green papaya, but I also got a bunch of ‘rau ram’ from Ai’s garden (another item that is not always easy to find). Rau ram is also known as Vietnamese cilantro. Its flavor is very similar to cilantro with some delightful nuances of its own. Since a warm weekend was in the forecast, I thought it was the perfect day for one of my favorite hot weather meals: Green Papaya Salad. This salad is fairly common in South East Asia and I have eaten many versions. As you would expect, it one of those dishes that no two people prepare the same. The hardest part is getting a good papaya. I have heard of people using other things as a substitute for green papaya such as green apples (meh), or rutabagas (not even)!, but I have never tried it with either of them. If you can’t find rau ram, cilantro, mint, and basil (of a combination of the three) are a very respectable substitution. Remember that “herbaceous” is “Vietnamese Cuisine’s” middle name. This salad also usually contains some form of protein (chicken, tofu, shrimp, or my favorite, beef). Dried beef is traditional, but I am going to make some “Nua Sawan” or “Heavenly Beef” which is Thai; it is similar to the dried beef, but much easier to whip up.
I have had very little luck finding good green papayas outside of The City, Oakland, or San Jose. I don’t really know why, but I suspect it is because they don’t keep very long and they don’t sell very many. You are looking for the ‘maradol’ type of papaya from Mexico, not the smaller variety from Hawaii. It is easy to find a ripe orange one but what you need to find is a green one. It should be very firm, without any blemishes or soft spots and very dark green. If you are not going to use it right away, wrap it in a dry paper towel, and keep it in a plastic bag in the fridge. It should last up to a week but that might be pushing it. If we were in Vietnam, we could go to the market and get it already shredded and ready to use. Some markets do that here, but it isn’t as good as when you shred it yourself. You can use a mandolin or a cheese grater or you can get a tool made especially for this purpose. In Southeast Asia, they use a technique that uses a very sharp knife, and a bit of skill; you can see that technique demonstrated here. If you are planning on using the latter technique, be sure to count your fingers when you are done to make sure they are all there.
Once you have your papaya shredded you have two options. One is to continue with the salad; the other is to squeeze out some of the juice. I prefer option number two. Removing the some of the juice keeps your salad from getting slimy. It also allows it to absorb more dressing. To prepare it this way, put the shredded papaya in a colander and toss it with a teaspoon and a half or so of salt, and let it sit for about 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes are up, rinse out the salt, and lay the shredded papaya out on a clean dry tea towel. Roll it up and twist the ends to get as much water out as possible, work in batches if you need to. Your papaya is now salad ready. You can do this early in the day, but it is best if you use it the same day. If you want to get ahead of yourself, you can make the dressing the day before.
The dressing for this salad is “nuoc cham”. This is a fairly standard condiment in Vietnam, and if you have ever eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant you have probably already tried it. They use it in Vietnam for flavoring everything, the same way we would use salt and pepper. I sometimes bring my own so I don’t have to suffer the dirty looks that I get by constantly asking for more. Everyone makes nuoc cham a little bit differently, and a fair amount of conversation in Vietnamese households is dedicated to discussing who makes the best. It is composed of fish sauce, sugar, chilies, lime, and garlic, tempered slightly by a little water as not to overpower anything.
- 1 green papaya, peeled and shredded (about 5 cups)
- ½ pound beef (chicken or shrimp)
- ½ cup rau ram or cilantro (you can also use a combination of cilantro, mint, and Thai basil)
- 1 carrot, peeled and shredded
- ¾ cup roasted nuts (peanuts or cashews)
- ¾ cup of dressing (see recipe below)
- ⅓ cup fried shallots (see note*)
- When you are ready to serve your salad, just toss all the ingredients together except for the shallots and beef. Plate the salad, and arrange the beef on top, then sprinkle the top with fried shallots. Serve some additional dressing on the side.
- 4 small cloves of garlic
- 2 Thai chilies
- 2½ tablespoons sugar
- ½ lime
- ½ cup fish sauce
- ⅔ cup water
- Split the chilies in half and remove the seeds and roughly chop.
- Place the chilies, garlic and sugar in a mortar, and grind it into a smooth paste.
- Squeeze the lime into the mortar, and use a knife to scrape the pulp of the lime into the mortar also.
- Mash the paste and lime together, and then add the fish sauce and water.
- Taste it to adjust the seasoning to suit your own taste.
- Add more water or lime juice if it is too strong for you.
- This recipe makes about 1¼ cup of dressing, enough for the salad and some on the side.
- 1 lb. lean beef (sirloin, tenderloin, eye of round) thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- Oil for deep frying
- Roast the coriander seeds in a dry pan until fragrant.
- Combine with the beef, fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar, mix well and allow to marinate for 30 minutes.
- Stir fry the meat in a wok or sauté pan until all the marinade is reduced and absorbed, and then remove.
- Heat about two cups of oil in another pan over medium heat. Deep fry the beef in batches until they float.
- Remove and drain on paper towels.
*Fried shallots are just that. The shallots are thinly sliced and deep fried in oil until brown and crispy. They are easy to make, and easy to screw up. They can go from awesome to awful in 5 seconds. Try to slice them as evenly as possible. Get the oil hot to start out, then lower it after a minute of two. Sprinkle the shallots with a little flour for added crispiness. Remove them from the oil as soon as they get golden. They will darken a bit more after they come out. If you burn them or take them too far they will have a bitter unpleasant taste. You can buy them already fried in the Asian market, but they are not as good as home made (but very convenient to have around).