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Tam Som: Green Papaya Salad Recipe

Tam Som - Green Papaya Salad

Last week when I bought a green papaya from Hollygrove Market and Farm, I sort of had a hunch of what I was going to do with it. On the box that contained these large, interesting fruits was a sign that said they could be used in a traditional green papaya salad recipe. I had little idea what that entailed, but it sounded interesting so I bought one to test it. Since I’m trying to take a more cultural-based approach to my work lately, I figured a traditional dish would be a great way to go with this green papaya. To top it all off, papaya has numerous health benefits (check out this article enumerating many of them) so that’s a win, too!

Tam Som - Green Papaya Salad

When I got home, I began researching this green papaya salad. I found that it has several different names depending on which country you’re in. I’ve decided to go with “Tam Som,” the Laotian term for this spicy/savory/sweet salad. Something else I found that varied greatly was the exact ingredients in the dish. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I came across a list of 13 potential ingredients. I did more research, this time on recipe blogs/websites, and found that there were a few ingredients that popped up pretty regularly: green papaya (of course!), tomato, longbeans (or green beans), dried shrimp, peanuts, and a dressing based on lime, fish sauce, garlic and Thai chilis.

I actually consulted four different recipes plus the Wikipedia entry before creating my own version of this dish – the five sites are listed below underneath the recipe form at the end of this post. I created a testing version of the recipe and started testing. I quickly realized that my dressing ratio was much too small for the amount of papaya I had – I’d procured a three pound papaya that yielded a staggering 10 cups of julienned papaya. So as I was working on this, I was adjusting on the fly. Sometimes that just what you have to do in the recipe creating world. I’m always careful to continue to measure things as I go so rest assured, the proportions below are correct.

Tam Som - Green Papaya Salad

I also took a couple of short cuts in the recipe. I took a cue from some of the recipes and made the dressing in the food processor instead of pounding the ingredients by hand, as is traditionally done. The phrase “tam som” literally translates into “pounded sour” in Laotian (thanks, Wikipedia for that). Pounding of the ingredients is supposed to be essential to this dish. But since it’s my own version, I did it differently. I combined the ingredients into the food processor and used that to produce a pretty awesome tasting dressing. The fish sauce, garlic, lime and chili worked very well together. I can see myself using that as a basis for lots of dishes in the future.

Now let’s talk about the proverbial elephant in the room – the tomato and longbeans. Clearly tomatoes aren’t really in season right now. Technically, neither are longbeans. BUT I was able to get the tomato I used here at Hollygrove like two weeks ago (it kept really well in the fridge) so I feel good using the tomato here because it was grown locally, and I did get it at the farmer’s market. I would not have used a grocery store tomato here. I try really hard to stick to my seasonal cooking standard. I gave myself a pass on the longbeans because they are technically in season year-round if they’re grown in California or Mexico. Considering I got the ones below were fresh, tasty and in good condition, I am going to *assume* they came from one of those two places. I actually bought these at the Hong Kong Market on the West Bank so who the heck knows where they *really* came from. I’m going with my original assumption, though.

Tam Som - Green Papaya Salad

I’ll also take a moment here to talk about dried shrimp. I’m from South Louisiana and dried shrimp is definitely a cultural item here. The Chinese actually brought their knowledge of drying shrimp to South Louisiana back in the late 1800’s. Both Chinese and Filipino immigrants helped to grow this industry in Louisiana. Today dried shrimp is mostly eaten as a snack around these parts but is also said to be used to flavor gumbos. I’ve not seen that done myself, but I’m sure somebody somewhere does that. The dried shrimp you see below came from Vieux Carre Seafood and Meats, located in the French Quarter. They’re a modest retail/wholesale business that serves both businesses and the public at large. I’m pretty stoked to have found them thanks to my good friend James.

Tam Som - Green Papaya Salad

The final thing to note here is that this salad can vary in how long it will keep fresh. If your papaya is nice and firm when you start, you can keep this 2-3 days. I read several recipes that said it needed to be eaten immediately, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I ate the last of mine just about 48 hours after it had been made, and it was still very good. The papaya was crunchy and the other ingredients still held their original integrity. I’m pretty sure it would have been good on the third day even, but I didn’t note that below because I only personally tested two days so I am sticking to that as a recommendation.

Tam Som - Green Papaya Salad

What about you? Have you ever tried Tam Som or any other kind of Asian green papaya salad? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. I’m interested in your experience with the dish.

Yield: 10-12 side portions; 3-4 main dishes

Tam Som: Green Papaya Salad Recipe

Tam Som is the Laotian name for a green papaya salad recipe, which features green papaya, tomato, longbeans, dried shrimp and a tangy, sweet, spicy dressing.

Ingredients:

Dressing:

  • 1/2 cup neutral oil  (like olive, grape seed or safflower)
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon chopped Thai chili, seeds and stem removed
  • Juice of 3 limes (about 1/2 cup)

Salad: 

  • 3 pounds green papaya, peeled, deseeded and julienned  (about 10 cups)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped tomato (substitute halved cherry or grape tomatoes, if preferred)
  • 1 cup 1”-pieces of longbeans, ends trimmed beforehand
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons dried shrimp, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons crushed salted peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion

Method:

  1. Combine ingredients in the “Dressing" section in a food processor, and whirl until mixed well and the garlic and chili are pulverized. Set aside for now.
  2. Add all the ingredients from the “Salad” section to a large mixing bowl. Add dressing and mix thoroughly.
  3. Eat right away or refrigerate for at least an hour to allow flavors to marry. Keeps well in the fridge for up to two days in an air tight container.

Recipe based on what I found here:

Prep:45 min

Total:45 min

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