As I got closer, I realized the people were not praying. In truth, they were planting their faces into a metallic dish of julienned papaya. Immediately, I sat down and ordered pointed. The woman piled a plate high with green papaya, threw on an assortment of meat jerky (including a rather tender liver jerky), squirted on a series of sauces from three plastic water bottles, and sprinkled peanuts and mint on top. What I brought to my lips was a symphony of noises: crunching, crisping, sighing, slurping. How the Vietnamese do make great food!
Back in the states, I am frequenting all the Vietnamese, Khmer, and Philipino markets in the Tenderloin to make me a Vietnamese green papaya salad. Let's talk about how to make one.
The first thing I should tell you is this: if you don't have a good knife, don't even attempt this dish. The cheapest knife from Ikea will not work. Don't be embarrassed. In college I had one too; forcing its nervous blade through the stubborn skin of a butternut squash almost brought me to the amputee reattachment ward. Now, I have a beautiful Sabatier knife. Actually, I have two.
So why the talk of the knife? Well to be honest, a salad is a salad. There is only so much I can show you about salad. We can talk about the components and the the dressing, but I won't insult you by going into specific amounts. Instead, I will talk about how the salad feels in your mouth and how it sounds while you chomp it down.
Green papaya salad is a masticater's dream. Try to think about the crunchiest coleslaw you've ever had. Think about the music it makes between your teeth. Now turn the music up. That's what it's like. The way you slice your papaya will transform your salad from good to addictive. I've never been able to take a decent picture of my green papaya salad because it disappears into mouth before I can snap a shot.
I used to julienne my green papaya in 2mm squared matchsticks. I was very happy with them. But then I tried a green papaya salad from The Slanted Door. I was a mad skeptic. The green papaya was julienned to less than 1mm squared matchsticks. I thought I would lose the crunch. Not so. Not only was the texture there, there was more flavor due to the increased surface area. The green papaya picked up even more flavor from the dressing, making it all the more addictive. Now I try to cut my matchsticks into slivers so narrow that you must floss to deepest ends of your teeth to retrieve them. It's a constant practice.
The following is a rough framework for a Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad. This is not the Thai-styale salad, which is also very tasty. The main difference is that Thai salads have much more in the way of aromatics, containing raw garlic, shallots, tomatoes, and dried shrimp.
VIETNAMESE GREEN PAPAYA SALAD
Green papaya, julienned
Green or ripe mango, julienned
Persian cucumber, julienned
Poached pork loin/shoulder, thinly sliced
Pork Jerky (Pigpigscorner does a beautiful rendition)
Powdered dried shrimp
(Vietnamese) Mint, torn
Rau Ram, torn
Sour Lime Dressing (1 small red chile-chopped, 3 T sugar, 1 large lime- peeled and sectioned, 2.5 T fish sauce. Pound chile and sugar into a paste. Stir in the lime pulp and pound down. Stir in any leftover lime juice and fish sauce.)
1. Soak green papaya in cold water for 10 minutes. Drain.
2. Fill your plate with salad fixings. Top with a generous amount of toppings - especially the fried shallots.
3. Decorate with the lots of herbs.