In composing a menu for a “Weed and Feed” party (that had nothing to do with smoking pot–I’m so not a stoner that I didn’t even consider the connotation) which involved luring acquaintances to my apartment with the promise of fabulous food in exchange for pulling the orchard of shoulder-high brambles that had consumed my backyard, careful consideration was needed. Burgers and hot dogs would be a tough sell. A Thai spread seemed like better bait and if you’re going to do Thai food in the midst of sweltering summer heat, a light, green papaya salad almost goes without saying.
Som Tam, a spicy salad consisting of shredded unripe, green papaya dressed with the salty (fish sauce), sweet (palm sugar), hot (bird chilies) and sour (lime juice, sometimes tamarind) foursome, is a northern Thai dish eaten for its cooling effect. Green papayas literally grow on trees in Thailand. It’s not quite so in the United States.
Living in Sunset Park, a Mexican neighborhood touching Chinatown, I didn’t think procuring papaya would be difficult and put off buying it until the day of the party. Faith in local produce was my first mistake. My confidence was shaken by both Asian and Hispanic grocers who each had a box of forest green, football-shaped behemoths in the back. The fruit wasn’t only freakishly large and pock marked, but outrageously priced. This wasn’t promising.
Sunflower-gold, ripe papaya taunted me at every corner. I skimmed sidewalk crates on the off chance a green one would jump out. The sugar cane and tropical fruit van around my corner was my last hope. I spied two greenish, mottled specimens on the verge of turning. Wishing I had x-ray vision to examine their interior, I desperately grabbed them anyway, despite the purveyor protesting, “They’re not ripe!” Figuring she knew what she was talking about, I felt relieved rushing home.
Panic set in as I cut into the papayas, revealing soft peachy flesh. Guests were to arrive in less than an hour, and the star ingredient was nowhere to be found. This was no time to be my usual slave to authenticity. (You wouldn’t guess it from my fascination with trashy food, but when it comes to replicating ethnic dishes I am a stickler for proper ingredients. Substituting soy sauce for fish sauce or ginger for galangal will throw me into seizures.) Quick, what could stand in? Green mango might work, but wouldn’t be any easier to score than green papaya. Cabbage seemed a pathetic substitute–this wasn’t a slaw. What else is tart, crisp, juicy and available anywhere any time of year? Granny Smith apples, I guessed. It pained me at first, but I got over the trauma of deviating from the recipe. Besides, it’s not like my friends are food snobs–they’d be happy with nachos and frozen ravioli.
Don’t bother with peeling, simply give them a spin through the grating disk of a food processor (grating by hand is a tedious nightmare), place into a colander and toss with fresh lime juice (the apples brown almost as fast as you can shred them). The excess liquid will leech while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
You can tweak the hot-sour-salty-sweet dynamic to your liking, I prefer an incendiary version, but whatever you do, allow for apple’s natural fruitiness. Less sugar is needed than in the traditional preparation. While not an exact match, green apples are an apt understudy, the result being a simple refreshing dish in its own right. Green apple salad tastes nothing like a compromise.
In a frenzied moment of forced improvisation, I discovered that it’s all right to tamper with tradition. I gained a new dish, and for the first time in a year, a clear view of my back fence.
Mock Green Papaya Salad
8-10 Thai bird chilies
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon dried shrimp
3/4 cup green beans
3 cups green apple, shredded
Juice of 3 limes
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 ½ tablespoons palm sugar
10 grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup toasted, chopped peanuts
Using a large mortal and pestle, smash the garlic and chilies into a paste. Add dried shrimp and green beans and lightly bruise. Stir in the green apple. Toss with fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, then mix in tomatoes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Mound on serving plate and top with peanuts.
This appeared in The New York Times mere weeks after I wrote the above. I’m no Mark Bittman, but heck…(oh, it’s archived now, but it entailed a green papaya recipe that used green apple).