This is one of my favorite Thai dishes — that crunchy, fresh, shrimpy salad slathered in lime, fish sauce, cilantro, and Thai basil. It's also one of those foods I never thought to make on my own. Instead, I reserved it for infrequent visits to Thai restaurants and Thai Buddhist temple brunches — until I found a place where I can buy fresh green papaya in San Francisco.
As the name implies, green papaya is basically an unripe papaya. It has a really mild taste, and a texture almost similar to a cucumber or daikon radish (although less firm). While you may be lucky enough to pick up green papaya at a well-stocked grocery store, the best place to find them is at Asian markets. They're often sold whole, and sometimes you'll find them pre-shredded.
I got a bag of already-shredded green papaya and took my treasure home to make fresh green papaya salad. If you simply cannot find green papaya, don't worry — just substitute shredded kohlrabi, carrots, or bean sprouts. These will have the same "crunch" and will carry the dressing very well.
I regularly order this salad from the Thai restaurant around the corner from my apartment, but this is the first time I've made it at home. It's surprisingly easy, and almost better than the restaurant version since I was able to adjust the amount of fish sauce and spice to my taste.
I made one change to my salad by omitting the dried shrimp because of an allergy. It's totally fine to leave it out; while it adds a little something, this salad is flavorful and refreshing with or without the shrimp.
- Kelli, September 2015
Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam)
Serves 4 as a side
For the dressing:
1 to 2 tablespoons small dried shrimp
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 medium limes, juiced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 red Thai chili pepper, sliced thinly (adjust amounts to the spice level you desire)
For the salad:
1 small green papaya (1 to 1 1/2 pounds) peeled, seeded, and grated (or 3 cups pre-shredded green papaya)
1 cup bean sprouts
3 medium scallions, sliced thin
1/2 cup fresh Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 to 2 small tomatoes, cut into strips (optional)
1/2 cup raw peanuts, crushed
Combine all the dressing ingredients in a bowl and crush with a pestle or the back of a spoon to release the flavors. Taste, and adjust the fish sauce to your liking. Add the chiles bit by bit until you get the spice level you can handle.
Add the other salad ingredients and toss well. Taste and adjust the lime juice or fish sauce if needed.
Top with crushed peanuts. Enjoy!
- This keeps well and was still good the next day; the flavors were more concentrated.
This recipe has been updated - originally published October 2009.
(Image credits: Kelli Foster)