When warm weather hits, there’s nothing I want more than Southeast Asian food. I want all the chili, all the lime juice, cilantro, Thai basil and green onion, palm sugar, brown sugar, fish sauce, peanuts, shrimp. I don’t care where in Southeast Asia my meal is from, nor do I care whether it’s stuffed inside translucent tacky skins of rice paper, flash blazed in a hot wok, or served cold with crunchy cabbage leaves. I want it all, insatiably, want my kitchen littered with red onion skins, my fingers rank with garlic’s stink. I want take-out pork grilled so that it’s sour and sweet and above all hot with tiny half moons of chili that sear the tender skin beneath my nose.
Not far from where we live, there’s a park whose real name no one really knows – we all just call it Thai Park. On weekends when the weather is nice, women and men set up small stands and cook. They sit on the ground or in low chairs with their makeshift hot plates and equipment, sauces lined up in plastic bottles, pre-made noodles and curries quickly heated in oil and a hot skillet. There’s crispy-fried fish, eyes crusty with panko, there are summer rolls and fresh dumplings, steamed buns, wok-shook vegetables with peanut sauce, pork belly fried with a toothy crunch of cartilage, spicy soups and salads quickly tossed together, dressed with liquid from those mysterious unmarked plastic bottles.
There’s tapioca pudding cool with coconut, milky Thai iced teas and coffee, steamed sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves and slices of sugared mango and mint.
You see? It’s all I can think about, these flavors that heat you up and cool you down, that fill you up and keep you wanting more.
What started this season’s obsession was nothing more than a routine trip to the Asian grocery store to pick up a new bottle of fish sauce and some tahini paste. In the small refrigerated aisle, amidst the bean sprouts, miniature green globes of eggplant and bunches of ripe peppercorn, was a stack of green papaya. The grocery doesn’t always have green papaya – in fact, this was the first time I’d seen it there. Instantly, I wanted green papaya salad, wanted the prickle of lime juice and sweet pungency of garlic.
At home, I crushed the garlic in a mortar, then gently bruised the beans so their skin veined with broken green. The tomatoes seeped juice, soaking up the oils and essence of chili and garlic as they felt the soft push of the pestle.
There’s a lot of grinding involved in making Som Tum – after you bruise the vegetables, there’s dried shrimp and palm sugar to be smashed, fish sauce to soothe the raw, rubbed open wounds. There’s no lack of bold flavors here.
The papaya itself is nothing special – it’s a cool, firm vegetable, not unlike a kohlrabi or cucumber leeched of its distinctive flavor. It has a pleasant crunch that carries the dish, an easy mildness that marries well with assertive tastes. But combined with the tender, sweet snap of a green bean and ripe summer tomatoes, it’s something special, and I understand why people go nuts for this dish.
For me, it’s only the beginning, the spark that makes me want to dive headfirst into a pot of fish sauce and never mind the stink.
Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad)
A few more tomatoes, a bit more cabbage for crunch – there’s not much that can go wrong here. The most important thing is to blend the flavors using a mortar and pestle – it gives you the control to seamlessly transition from heavy smashing to light bruising, Super Smash Bro.’s style.
1 clove garlic
Handful fresh French green beans, trimmed (about 10)
Handful cherry tomatoes, halved (about 7)
2 bird’s eye chili, de-seeded and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. dried shrimp
1 ½ tbsp. palm sugar
1 ½ tsp. fish sauce
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tbsp.)
2 cups shredded green papaya
2 tbsp. toasted peanuts
Sticky rice, to serve
Chopped cabbage, to serve
Cilantro, to serve
Using a mortar and pestle, smash garlic to a paste. Add green beans and bruise, then add tomatoes and chili, and bruise some more – but gently – you’re not trying to make tomato juice. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
Place dried shrimp, palm sugar, and fish sauce in the mortar, and grind until a thick paste forms. Add lime juice and give the pestle a few more turns to combine.
Grate papaya or use a vegetable peeler to create long, thin strips. Be sure not to use any of the white pith or seeds in the hollow center of the papaya. Add papaya to crushed beans and tomatoes, then add shrimp sauce and toasted peanuts. Stir well to combine and allow to rest about 10 minutes before serving, tossing occasionally. Serve with white sticky rice, chopped cabbage dressed with a little lime juice and plenty of fresh cilantro.