I remember a time when Thai food was exotic, before it had achieved the status that Chinese food used to hold as the go-to urban takeout fare. As a result of its ubiquity, Thai food has lost many of its unique qualities. Your average Thai takeout is vaguely peanutty, coconutty and lemongrassy, but what it mostly tastes like is industrial vegetable oil.
Fortunately, if you’re lucky enough to live near an Asian grocery store, really good Thai food is not at all difficult to make at home. Last weekend, I headed up to Jackson Heights in Queens and managed to procure a green papaya, fresh turmeric, and half a cheese pumpkin from Patel Brothers Grocery. A bit of a trek, an hour by subway, but I really like papaya salad, and Jackson Heights is always a pleasure. Whenever I walk down 74th Street in that neighborhood it puts me in a holiday mood, as if there were a thousand parties going on and you only had to turn the corner to find one that would welcome you.
Now, papaya salad is probably one of my favorite things to eat. To me there’s nothing better than dipping a piece of glutinous sticky rice into the dressing while your mouth is still on fire from eating spiced papaya strips. Green papaya is underripe papaya. It’s less sweet than ripe papaya and mostly used in salads and other savory foods. To get the dressing right you need just the right combination of saltiness, spiciness and sweetness. I spent fifteen minutes yesterday trying to get it right. Fortunately, Thai food is very forgiving and you are actually going for an overwhelming amount of flavor, so don’t be afraid to spice your dressing liberally. You also want your salad to be fishy tasting so don’t skimp on the fish sauce either. The fish sauce also adds saltiness, so it’s very important that you put in enough. I served it as a starter with a seafood pumpkin curry as the main course.
For the salad:
½ a green papaya
¾ cup roasted peanuts
2 cups bean sprouts
1-cup cherry tomatoes, halved
3 spring onions, chopped
1/2 cup packed basil, roughly chopped
1 chili, deseeded and minced
1 cup blanched green beans, halved
For the dressing:
5 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 3 limes
¼ cup honey
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1.) Mix together dressing ingredients, adjust seasoning to taste.
2.) Peel, deseed and shred papaya. I used the shredding function on my Cuisinart.
3.) Add tomatoes, green onion, chili, bean sprouts, green beans, and basil to shredded papaya. Pour over dressing and toss.
4.) Add nuts and toss again. Adjust seasoning. Chill in the refrigerator one hour to allow flavors to cohere.
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