When my husband and I decided to travel to Thailand for our honeymoon the things we were looking forward to most were not the idyllic beaches or stunning temples (though we certainly loved both of those things) – the thing we were absolutely most excited about in Thailand was the food.
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Eating Thai food in Thailand is like experiencing life in color for the very first time. Everything is fresh, and vibrant, and exploding with flavor. Thai food is all about balance – salty, sweet, sour, and spicy all tangoing together perfectly in one perfect dish.
The very first thing we did when we landed in Bangkok to kick off our trip was a nighttime food tour of the city (you know how I love my food tours). It was the perfect way to start the trip, and it set us up for very happy eating for the remainder of the two weeks.
When we made our way north to Chiang Mai, we took a cooking class to learn about Thai ingredients and how to cook real Thai food. Cooking classes are a really popular activity in Chiang Mai, and we had a hard time narrowing down the options. We ultimately picked Thai Secret Cooking School because we visited a market first to go grocery shopping and also got to pick ingredients from their own organic garden.
The cooking class menu was incredibly varied – we were able to cook a whole variety of dishes and between me, my husband, and the nice Canadian man we befriended, we had a veritable feast at the end of the class.
One of the first appetizers we started out making was Som Tam or Thai Papaya Salad. For me, this dish is quintessentially Thailand. Fresh, colorful, crunchy, spicy. Thai Papaya Salad is vibrant in both color and flavor.
Thai Papaya Salad Ingredients
Traditionally Som Tam is made with unripe papaya, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and chili peppers. The green papaya is critical – find an Asian grocery store in your area and you’re sure to find some. There are different cuisines all throughout Southeast Asia that make use of green papaya, so I’ve never struggled to find this at Asian markets in Nashville.
The tomatoes are also important – they contribute to the overall tang of the papaya salad and their juices help to create the dressing. The chili peppers are also non-negotiable – Thai food is spicy and even their salads have a kick to them.
The shredded carrots and green beans in Thai Papaya Salad are certainly traditional, but they’re a little less important. If green beans aren’t looking good, then I usually omit them entirely. Carrots do provide a nice crunch and brightness to the overall dish, but the same can be said for red cabbage which is what I substitute here instead.
How to Make Thai Papaya Salad
Som Tam starts with a mortar and pestle. Actually, when we made the papaya salad in Thailand, we made the entire salad in a really big mortar and pestle. For this recipe, I use a mortar and pestle to pound the garlic with Thai chilis, salt, fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice.
Pounding the dressing in a mortar and pestle like this releases the flavors and oils of the ingredients in a different way than mixing them together in a food processor does. That said, I don’t think the difference is that stark – use a mortar and pestle if you have one, otherwise a food processor gets the job done perfectly well!
After the dressing is made, you toss it together with the shredded papaya, other vegetables, and lots of fresh herbs. To shred the papaya, I highly recommend investing in a julienne peeler if you don’t have one already. It’s also great for shredding carrots, and if you don’t have a vegetable spiralizer it’s good for creating zucchini noodles too.
The final garnish that takes this Thai papaya salad over the top is crushed, salted peanuts. They give a hit of extra crunch and saltiness that wakes up the whole salad. Make sure to taste the papaya salad at the end and adjust any of the seasonings to your liking.
I find this Thai papaya salad to be best about an hour after it’s been made. The flavors have a chance to come together, but all the vegetables are still bright and crunchy. It would be a perfect side to bring to a summer BBQ. It also holds up fairly well for a day in the fridge – just be sure to add the peanuts right before serving because they lose their crunch easily.
Crunchy Thai Papaya Salad
This Thai Papaya Salad (Som Tam) is incredibly fresh tasting – it's tangy, salty, spicy, cruncy, and refreshing all at the same time!
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 3-4 small Thai chilis
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- 1 ½ tbsp brown sugar or palm sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1 small green papaya, peeled & shredded/julienned About 6 cups in total
- ½ red cabbage, shredded About 3 cups in total
- 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
- 2 tbsp chopped mint
- 2 tbsp chopped Thai basil
- ⅓ cup coarsely chopped salted peanuts plus extra for garnish
In a mortar and pestle or food processor, combine garlic, chilis, salt, and sugar. Pulse 6-7 times if using a food processor. Smash until the garlic cloves and thai chilis are both broken up if using a mortar and pestle
Add fish sauce and lime juice to the ingredients and pulse or smash to incorporate them
Combine the shredded papaya, shredded red cabbage, cherry tomatoes, mint, and Thai basil together in a large mixing bowl. Toss with the dressing until evenly coated.
Taste the papaya salad for seasoning and add lime juice, sugar, or fish sauce to your liking. Add peanuts to the salad and toss again.
Serve with extra peanuts and fresh herbs for garnish!