A regular meal at our house is green papaya salad, usually eaten together with roasted meats, lettuce, pork skin, and sticky rice. In Thai it is known as somtam (literally “pounded sour”). In Isaan and Laos it is known as “pounded papaya”, or tam bak-hung ตำบักหุ่ง. This salad is incredibly popular in Thailand and Laos, and nearly every street corner will have someone ready to pound a salad for you at a mobile cart, complete with mortar and pestle (an essential Thai/Lao cooking device). There is a big difference, though, between the salads of Central Thailand and the salads of Isaan and Laos: in the East they use Fermented fish. A separate post will come later on this magical ingredient of Isaan/Lao cuisine, but for now know that it is a smelly and necessary ingredient for a big portion of cooking in Thailand’s northeast.
For tonight’s salad at our house, we are actually doing a mostly Central Thai version (i.e. more sour and sweet than funky umami). We have other strong flavored items to eat together with it though, that will make for a nice pairing: Prahok ti (full of fermented fish flavor) from Seng Hong market, and sour pork sausages (and a few Mexican chorizo).
Green papaya can be found at a few East Asia-focused markets around Philadelphia (Spring Garden market has them), but your best bet on good firm papayas will be at Southeast Asian markets of North and South Philly, especially Cambodian and Lao markets. You can occasionally find green papayas at larger mainstream markets, but they are usually just on the verge of ripening, and those wouldn’t make a nice crunchy salad.
This big one (sometimes I can’t find nice smaller ones) will provide for probably 4 salads. Usually I buy smaller sized papaya that will do about two meals (since this salad isn’t great for leftovers, and it’s best freshly shredded and eaten. Update 14Dec2014: for another great use of this fruit (especially if you have some leftover from a salad) is soup. Sour soup with green papaya and fried salmon post.
Key ingredients to a papaya salad include fresh garlic cloves, fresh Thai bird’s eye chiles, tomatoes, lime, sugar, and fish sauce. Crushed peanuts and dried shrimp are common ingredients to the Central Thai version, as is occasional use of tamarind water. In Laos and Isaan, fermented fish is often used, as is fermented field crabs and or fermented crayfish.