This Thai Green Papaya Salad, is one of my favourite South East Asian salads! I know, I know, I’ve said that before! What can I say, I love South East Asian food! It is, where I’m from, after all.
To say that the green papaya salad is refreshing, is putting it mildly. It invigorates your very being with its intensely powerful combination of hot, sour, salty, savoury and sweet flavours, epitomising Thai cuisine and indeed the foods of some of its immediate neighbours.
Thai green papaya salad or som tam, is originally from Laos. From there, it travelled down to the Isan region of Thailand (in the north east), and is now found all over, explaining why everyone thinks of it as a Thai salad. In Laotian, the salad is known as tam som, or “pounded sour”. In Thai, it is som tam. Tam is pounded and som is sour. And you get all manner of salads cooked this way, not just the green papaya salad; they are notoriously hot and sour because of the use of chillies and lime juice.
As mentioned in the Thai Oyster Salad recipe, Thai salads can be loosely categorised in the following way:
Yam (Yum) – where all the ingredients are just mixed together
Tam – some of the ingredients are pounded, the most famous is of course, today’s som tam, green papaya salad
Lap – more commonly known as larb, with the minced meat being its distinguishing feature
Phla – quite similar to yam in flavour but does contain quite a bit of protein. It also tends to be heavier on thinly sliced herbs like mint and lemongrass.
The image above shows you a typical stall in Thailand, selling freshly made salads. You’ll notice a couple of clay mortars with wooden pestles in a jug of water. There are a couple of bowls/pots, not quite clearly seen, that are filled with the sauce that’s all ready to be used in the salads. The sauce contains fish sauce, lime juice, chillies, palm sugar and garlic. This makes it easier for the vendor, instead of putting the individual ingredient in each time there’s an order.
On the left is a steel bowl of shredded green papaya and carrots, You can see long (snake) beans, onions, eggs, tomatoes, round Thai aubergines (eggplants), limes, tomatoes, chillies cucumbers and cabbage. So Som Tam doesn’t have to be just green papaya salad, it can be any salad with the ingredients lightly pounded in the mortar.
But for the purposes of today’s post, we’ll be doing the very popular Thai green papaya salad.
Green Papaya Substitute
Green papaya is just the younger, unripe version of the orange fleshed variety that you are probably used to.
Unless you have a good Thai or South East Asian supplier nearby, a green papaya is not going to be easy to come by. But hey, in this modern world of online shopping, hardly anything is impossible to get your hands on. Right? Even Amazon will stock it!
Green papaya has a dark green skin with a very, very pale flesh. It is crunchy and very, very bland! Practically tasteless! So unlike the green mango, the green papaya doesn’t contribute in terms of taste. Which, in my kitchen means that it can be easily substituted. I see many people suggesting using an ordinary, ripe papaya if you can’t get the green one. Let me tell you that that’s just not going to work. Ripe papayas are sweet with a hint of cream. That’s just going to mess with the taste.
Some other folks suggest cucumbers. That might work, but I think they are just not “hard enough”. So what do I think makes the best substitute for the green papaya in a Green Papaya salad? White cabbage. Plain and simple. It’s bland. It’s crunchy. And rather conveniently, it’s the same colour! I’m amazed that I’ve never seen it suggested before. That’s right folks, you heard it right here on LinsFood first – cabbage is the best substitute for green papaya! Thinly shred or slice the cabbage and use in the exact same way.
Now that we’ve got the green papaya out of the way, let’s look at a few more ingredients in this salad:
Palm Sugar – click to read more. This is from the flowers of palm trees, and the thick liquid form, if you can get it, is better for this recipe, as there is no heat to help the granules dissolve. But if you can’t, it’s not the end of the world, just go with the granules. Use white sugar as a substitute in this recipe. Less chance of your salad getting too caramel flavoured.
Dried Shrimp – click to read more. Smells strongly of the sea and packs a serious umami punch. Leave out if you can’t get it, or if you want to keep this strictly vegetarian (don’t forget the fish sauce too if going vegetarian). I’ve eaten many salads in Thailand without the dried shrimp.
Fish Sauce – very easily available these days. Vegetarians, substitute it with half the amount of light soy sauce and a pinch of salt, adding more if necessary.
Peanuts – dry toasted (no oil) peanuts are the best way to go. Do it yourself at home or use shop bought. It only takes about 5 minutes to toast them from scratch. They are a very common ingredient in South East Asian cooking. Leave them out if you don’t do peanuts or you can use dry toasted rice powder, also a traditional topping. Click to read more.
Snake Beans or Long Beans – a very common Asian vegetable. Use any other green bean instead, that’s what I always do, as I have never liked them.
Final word before we get (figuratively) cooking the Thai Green Papaya Salad:
Thai salads, I guess that goes for all salads, are very fluid. Taste as you go along, or when you are done and adjust the seasoning to your taste. Second time you make it, feel free to increase and decrease the ingredients as you see fit.
I’m also giving you the recipe for 1 serving. This is because the Thai green papaya salad is traditionally made in a mortar with a pestle to pound the initial ingredients. So you’re not going to be able to fill that up too much. Read on on how to make a big batch, increasing the ingredients proportionately.
When I’m making it for friends, I do this at the table when they are all sitting down. I have a huge glass bowl ready and start with the recipe as you see it. But before the mortar gets full, I tip the contents into the bowl. So, I start with the garlic and shrimp, tip in bowl. Then the chillies, tip. Green beans, tip. And finally the tomatoes get crushed and tipped into the bowl. Then, everything else that needs to be mixed in, the papaya, the sauce, juice and sugar, all get dumped into the bowl. I then use a large salad spoon and server and mix it all up gently. Scatter with the peanuts and we’re done. All in about 5 rapturous minutes, from the guests’ point of view.
Final, Final word, I promise!
How to store and what to do with the leftover green papaya? If it’s already shredded, place in a bag, keep it in the fridge and use it within 24 hours, or it’ll get all mushy and slimy. If the papaya is unshredded, wrap up in clingfilm, place in fridge and use within 2-3 days.
Remember how I mentioned that it’s practically tasteless? Use it in place of cabbage or cauliflower. Use it in a stir fry, in any recipe. I am planning to create a chilli paste recipe from the one I currently have in my fridge. Will link up when I do.
Let’s get salad-ing!
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tsp dried shrimp
- 1 red bird's eye chilli
- 5 green beans, halved
- 3 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 handful shredded green papaya
- half - 1 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp palm sugar
- fresh juice of 1 lime
- 1 Tbsp toasted peanuts
- a few fresh mint or Thai basil leaves
- Start by pounding and crushing the garlic.
- Follow with the dried shrimp, pounding it down to break it up a little.
- Next, add the chilli and green beans, pounding to bruise and to break up the chilli for heat.
- Add the tomatoes, crush lightly with the pestle, just to extract a little juice, we don't want them mushy.
- Finally, add the green papaya, half Tbsp fish sauce, the palm sugar and the lime juice. Mix it all up with a spoon and taste. Add more fish sauce if you'd like it saltier and more palm sugar if you think it needs it.
- Top with the peanuts and mint or Thai basil and enjoy immediately.