Lao green papaya salad is slightly different from the better known Thai version, and is even easier to make, but no less flavorful. It's spicy, sour and gently sweet, while also refreshing at the same time. A delicious appetizer or side.
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Green papaya salad is a dish you'll find in various versions around the Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese region. Some are simpler than others, the flavor profile can vary from more sweet to more sour and spicy. But to me they are all delicious and worth trying.
For many people, you are most likely to have come across one of the Thai versions, but one that I feel should be just as well known is the Lao version, tham mak hoong. It's much simpler, yet packed with delicious flavor.
What is green papaya?
Green papaya is simply unripe papaya that is used as an ingredient in itself in Southeast Asia. It's crisper and not as sweet, so almost treated like more of a vegetable.
Unripe/green mango can be used in much the same way, and in fact is used instead of can be used fairly interchangeably in salads like this (like Cambodian green mango salad).
I often find it pretty hard to find a truly green papaya here since it's not a local ingredient, and I guess the supermarkets maybe assume you want to ripen it. Sometimes even with a greener skin, it's still partly ripe inside.
But even when going slightly pink inside, as above, as long as the flesh is firm, it will work well. And you can get away with slightly riper too, it will just be a little softer and sweeter.
Where is green papaya salad from?
This salad's origins can be traced to Laos, with the Thai versions (som tam and others) being later adaptations as people emigrated there from Laos, particularly during the Vietnam war.
How do Lao and Thai versions differ?
First, what they have in common: both include green papaya, tomatoes, lime, Thai red chili and sugar. Then other additions vary from there.
The Lao version has minimal additions, apart from in the sauce. Here additional flavors include padaek, a fermented fish paste, and nam pu, a fermented crab dip. Both have a pretty strong flavor and smell, so you don't need much.
The strength of flavor is likely part of why the flavors were adapted in Thai versions, as well as availability. Thai versions tend to to be milder, using fish sauce and sometimes more sugar for the sauce. They also add other ingredients like green beans, shrimp (often dried) and roasted peanuts (similar to other Thai salads like pomelo salad).
For this Lao version, if you can find padaek, then it's worth adding a little. If not, then fish sauce and shrimp paste do a good job at being close in flavor (and less intense). It's also this combination that I was taught at a cooking class in Laos many years ago, so has become more common, if less traditional.
I have made this without shrimp paste when I haven't had any, and just increased the fish sauce, but I do think the shrimp paste adds a little more depth of flavor, even if it's not exactly the best smelling or looking ingredient.
Preparing the papaya
You cut the papaya into julienne lengths for this which you can achieve in a number of ways. This can be with a mandolin, using a peeler that creates long thick-ish lengths (for a peeler) or by scoring then peeling lengths.
You can also peel or cut off strips of papaya then cut these further into strips, as you might do with firm vegetables like carrot if you don't have a mandolin. But here, I think this is probably more time consuming than any of the other ways.
I used one red chili here to give a bit of bite to the salad without being too much, but you can easily increase or decrease the heat factor as you prefer.
All of the flavors combine so deliciously in this Lao green papaya salad that I could eat it over and over. And being so easy, there's really no excuse, as I'm sure you'll discover if you make it yourself. Healthy, full of flavor, light and easy. What more could you need.
Try these other tasty Laos and Thai dishes:
- Luang Prabang salad - Laos salad (a lovely greens-based salad with a creamy egg-based dressing)
- Nam khao (a delicious Lao salad made by frying seasoned rice balls, and mixing with herbs, peanuts and more)
- Thai red curry (perfect for leftovers)
- Thai beef salad - nam tok ('waterfall beef')
- Beef massaman curry
- Plus get more Southeast Asian recipes in the archives.
Lao green papaya salad
- 10 ½ oz papaya 300g, approx, unripe/green ideally, or unripe mango
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
- 2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 clove garlic roughly chopped
- 1 red chili roughly chopped (or more/less to taste, see notes)
- 8 cherry tomatoes
- 1 lime juice ie from 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- Peel and deseed the papaya and cut into matchstick pieces (either with a mandolin or roughly by hand).
- Ideally with a pestle and mortar, crush together the shrimp paste, sugar, garlic and chili until the garlic and chili are largely a paste. Halve the cherry tomatoes and crush them slightly with the garlic-chili paste so that they are breaking up slightly but not falling apart.
- Add the lime juice and fish sauce, pour over the papaya and mix through. Check the taste and add a little more lime juice or fish sauce, to taste.
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This post was first shared in May 2015 and has been updated with new photos and additional information.