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The tao of papaya

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Most agree that papayas probably originated in Central America and made their way to India around the 1500 or 1600s.
Photo: Flickr | geishabot
Jet Tila

It sounds like the latest and greatest kung fu movie, but the Tao of Som Tam really is just a no-BS explanation of the different types of papaya salad and how to order and eat them like an expert.

Though more than one region of Southeast Asia enjoys this simple-yet-explosive dish, the country that is credited with exposing the world to papaya salad definitely is Thailand. Northern and eastern Thais eat papaya salad on a daily basis, but as we delve deeper into its history we find its origins actually are Laotian. As people traveled and traded between countries during times when borders were less important than tribes, this dish traveled with them.

My gut and cooking Spidey sense tell me that this dish must have started on the coast by Burma and moved east through Laos and Thailand, and then into Vietnam. Here’s the evidence: One, papayas are from the new world; most agree that they probably originated in Central America and made their way to India around the 1500 or 1600s. Two, the presence of either crab or shrimp tells me this dish had to come from a coastal area.

A lot of guests that come to Wazuzu and order papaya salad ask, “Where is the papaya in the dish?” Papaya salad n00bs expect to see ripe, floral, sweet papaya in their salad. I hate ripe papaya! I think it smells like excrement and I never, never eat it! It’s kinda like that asparagus pee gene — some people think asparagus makes your pee smell and others just don’t get a whiff. Well, it’s the same with papaya — some think it smells and others don’t. I fall into the former category.

There are two primary types of papaya — Hawaiian and Mexican. Hawaiian papayas are the pear-shaped smaller guys that are about one to two pounds with orange-to-pink flesh. Thai and Laos papaya salads actually are made with the larger Mexican variety. Mexican Papayas can grow up to 15 pounds and have a very dense, neutral-tasting flesh when young. The flesh is white with green tinges and has a mild and very faint sweetness. This flesh is shredded to make the papaya salad.

Like the main types of papaya, there are two main types of papaya salad. To order like an expert, hit your favorite “Thai” restaurant and say no to chopsticks! We don’t eat with chopsticks, dudes (another blog for another time). I put the Thai in quotes, because if you’re not from the region, you probably won’t have any idea if the restaurant owner is northern Thai, northeastern Thai, Lao or southern Thai. All of these regions have very different papaya salads, so there are plenty of types to taste. If you are a n00b Thai diner always start with Thai papaya salad! Thai Som Tam is always made with dry salted shrimp and is mild and slightly sweet in flavor. Laotian Som Tam is always made with salted crab and shrimp paste, and doesn’t always have peanuts. For those that have travelled the world, lived in hostels, roughed it in suspect conditions and eaten things handed to them from tribesmen without flinching, you are the right person to try the Laotian style of papaya salad. I joke, but it’s taken me a lot of years to savor and appreciate the Laotian variety. Here are a few places in Las Vegas to give them both a try:

Krung Siam

For a solid Thai papaya salad, go to Krung Siam. This salad will hit the spot with a perfect balance of palm sugar, lime juice, chili, garlic and Thai chili. But be very careful if you are sensitive to spicy food. Krung pulls no punches; the level 10 there will make you submit and keep burning you well into tomorrow. You can always order mild, but for the love of Buddha, don’t you dare order it with zero heat! Som Tam has to have a little burn to it. The tried and true compliment to Thai papaya salad is BBQ chicken and sticky rice. This is the holy trinity of Thai street food fare. Amen.

3755 Spring Mountain Rd #102. 735-9485.

Laos Market

The hands down best Laotian papaya salad in town is at Laos Market in North Las Vegas. You know it’s the shit when there are no signs that say “papaya salad” or “Som Tam.” Besides being the most amazing Southeast Asian market in Las Vegas, it also has some of the best food. I promise to write in more depth later about the market itself. For Asian-inclined cooks this place is a must-visit. Mosey right to the counter and ask for an order of Som Tam. There is no choice here, only Lao style papaya salad, and don’t you dare upset the natives and ask for Thai food! The only choice is how spicy do you want it? Screw this 1-10 Lotus of Siam bullshit; it’s only mild or hot at Lao Market! The flavor of shrimp paste and salted crab dominate, and the sourness and very mild sweetness of the papaya round out the flavor. To make a perfect Laotian meal, grab a to-go box of the freshly made larb, some Lao sausages and some sticky rice. All this place is missing are some benches and tables to enjoy the food. You can always do what Sarah Feldberg and I did recently and go back to your car, lay out a picnic spread on the dashboard and enjoy your Laotian lunch!

629 Las Vegas Boulevard North. 366-0881.

Ocha Thai

To finish your papaya salad journey though Las Vegas, head to Ocha Thai just north of Sahara on the Strip. Ocha’s owners are actually from ISAN. This is the northeastern region of Thailand where they enjoy their own version of papaya salad that’s a hybrid of Thai and Lao styles. It has some sweetness and peanuts like the Thai version, but also that lovely crab and shrimp paste essence of the Laotian style. It’s punchy and unrefined. I’d also order it with sticky rice and fried beef jerky to make a good meal. Polish it off with some Singha beer and you’ve just had a fine culinary experience.

1201 Las Vegas Blvd S. 386-8631.

If you are an apron-wearing weekend warrior and want tackle Som Tam at home, here’s my recipe for Thai papaya salad. For a super authentic take, pick up a clay mortar at Laos market and go to town!

Papaya salad (Som Tam)

Dressing

2 oz Fish sauce

2 oz Lime juice

2 oz Palm or brown Sugar

2 cloves Garlic, minced

1 tbsp Dried salted shrimp, ground into powder

1-3 Thai chili, minced

Salad

8 cups Young green papaya, grated

1 cup Long beans bias cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths

8-10 Grape tomatoes, quartered

1 tbsp Dried salted shrimp, ground into powder

1 cup chopped roasted peanuts

Place the dressing ingredients and a few tomatoes and long beans into a blender and pulse together for about 5 seconds. Dressing should be slightly chunky and not entirely smooth. Add chilies to taste depending on desired heat.

Toss papaya, remaining long beans and tomatoes, dried shrimp and some of the peanuts together with dressing to taste. Make sure to aggressively mix the ingredients to slightly break up the tomatoes and beans. Garnish with remaining peanuts and shrimp powder.

Serve immediately.

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