Monday, January 14, 2008

Green Papaya Salad

Liz and I are sitting in a street café in Vientiane which looks out over the Mekong River to Thailand. I am enjoying a green papaya salad while my friend, who is not fond of spicy food, enjoys her soup. The waiter brings a woman to our table to verify this. Not to verify that I am eating payaya salad as much as that this is what green papaya salad looks like.

I frequently check out what other people are eating, especially in a new country or new restaurant. My observations however are generally surreptitious so this direct approach of the Lao waiter, who is probably the owner and cook, I enjoy.

But the woman’s insistence that she doesn’t want noodles, finally gets to the waiter/owner and he goes off to deal with more amenable customers. Abandoned by the waiter, she stands forlornly staring at my plate, then glances quizzically at us, not sure how she got here.

“You can get them with noodles if you want” I tell her, “but this is just plain green papaya salad. Sorry, I correct myself, green papaya salad is never plain. ”

“If you have only seen chunks of orange papaya as a fruit before, it is true, these do not look like papaya,” adds my friend Liz, inviting the woman to try some of my papaya salad and hands her a clean fork.

I can’t believe she is offering my salad to a stranger! Then I laugh, warning the woman to be careful because Laotian green papaya salad is very hot to the uninitiated. This is one of those crazy situations that one constantly bumps into in other cultures that is a big part of the joy of travel. We lose our conditioned responses and find ourselves in entirely new situations.

Green papaya salad is a specialty of Laos and Thailand. I first discovered it in the Seychelles, where it does not have chili peppers. Fully formed but unripened papaya are used as a vegetable in Southeast Asia as well as in Africa because of its crunchy texture and mild flavour. Since papaya are often green on the outside, only beginning to turn yellow when ripe, you need to know how to identify green ones. Or you have the option of getting to know the market women or of watching your own tree. The evidence that a papaya is not yet ripe lies in the seeds that are white like the flesh whereas they are black in mature papaya. But verifying this means you would need to cut open the papaya so the skill is useful to develop.

The papaya is peeled and then notched lengthwise, creating long thin flat strands with parallel knife strokes which create ridges in the length of the papaya. The ridges are then shaved to create more stands of papaya. You stop shaving when you get to the seeds.

To fully appreciate the process of shredding or grating a papaya Lao style, you need to watch someone doing it. There is a YouTube video here. In Laos vendors prepare the green salad while you watch in the many sidewalk stalls. Graters are not used because they do not produce the long strands needed. It is an art and fun to watch and will increase your appreciation of Lao culinary skills.

In the top photograph you can see the woman with the ridged papaya in her hand with a tray of green papaya strands in front.

In Laos the garlic, chillies and chopped tomato arecrushed in a mortar and then the fish sauce and lime juice added. When it is all crushed together the green papaya is added. Chopped peanuts and dried shrimps can also be added for variation.

Lao Green Papaya Salad
1-5 small red chilies
2 garlic cloves
1 chopped tomato
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons lime juice

3-4 cups shredded green papaya

My recipe for a milder version comes from Helen Payet in Mahe, Seychelles and was my personal introduction to green papayas.

Seychelles/ Creole Green Papaya Salad

Peel and grate very green papaya in long thin strands. The 4-5” pieces are then soaked in salty water for half an hour. Squeeze out water. Slice and chop onions (could use green onions) lemon, salt and pepper. Fry in 1 T of oil until tender. Toss with strands of green papaya.

Helen also prepared a cooked green papaya salad by adding chopped papaya and tomatoes to the onions, covering tightly and simmering for 10-15 minutes until tender. The cover is then removed and the salad cooked over high heat until the juices thicken.

Green papaya are plentiful in Africa, similar to rhubarb in Canada, so it is good to have lots of recipes.

Helen Payet's Green Papaya Jam

Peel and grate 2 large green papaya. Add 1 ½ lbs. of sugar, vanilla pod and cook until it sets. Do not add water. Add nutmeg when set and squeeze one lemon over it.

A more precise recipe from the Congo that can be found in Bill Odarty’s A Safari of African Cooking uses water.

Green Papaya Jam

3 c sugar

3 c water

3 c grated green papaya

½ tsp vanilla

4 T lemon

Heat sugar and water for 5 minutes to make syrup. Add grated papaya and cook slowly over low heat. When mixture thickens, remove from heat and add vanilla and lemon juice. Mix well. Pour into jars and seal. Fills two large jars.

There are also green papaya soup and pickles in Odarty’s cookbook.

After sampling my papaya salad, the woman didn't much like it, too hot she said. It was her first time and it was real hot. She was travelling alone so we talked a bit looking out at the winking lights over on the Thailand side of the Mekong River. We agreed it was hard to be a solo traveler so it is nice to opportunities offered by seredipity to meet other travellers.



Blogger Green Eilleen said...

Thanks for this great recipe! I'm so envious of your exciting travels. Really nice photos and narrative here, thank you for sharing them!


2:57 PM  
Blogger chanpheng said...

Nice papaya recipes. Along with 'som tam' or 'taam mak-heung', Thai and Lao styles, I like Vietnamese papaya salad - sauce made of lemon juice, cane sugar, vinegar, peanuts, dried shrimp and basil poured over shredded papaya and carrots and topped with grilled beef or pork.

Glad to see you're catching up on your Lao trip. Where next?

9:30 PM  
Blogger Borneo Breezes said...

Thanks for your comments. Eileen. We need more people enjoying green papaya salad.

chenpheng-- Would like to be able to tell them all apart. Thanks for dropping by.

6:15 PM  

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