I’m not sure why I ended up becoming a chef. It’s not like I grew up in a family with a rich culinary history. In fact, to this day my mom wonders how I “got to be so good” with food because she’s… well, not (her words, not mine). Both my parents valued our family time around the dinner table, but the focus was never on the actual meal. Food took a backseat to conversation and time together. And for that, I’m incredibly thankful. But it’s hard to say how our uninspired weekly meals of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, or microwaved frozen peas and carrots led to my creative hunger for all things food. Maybe it was the lack of something that drove me to see what else was out there. Maybe it was my way of exploring other worlds or cultures that were absent from my little life in the quiet farm town I grew up in Northern California. Maybe it was boredom. Whatever the reason, it sure led me down one flavorsome path.
Chalk it up to craving more spice on my growing palate but my love of (all) Asian food started pretty early in my life. The spices, the strong aromas, the incredible produce, and the lengthy, all day preparation of layered flavors intrigued me as a young chef. Not only were the flavors beyond anything I had eaten growing up but the diverse culinary traditions that expands the entire continent kept my insatiable curiosity on overdrive (and it still does). And one of the dishes that made me first fall in love with Southeast Asian food was this simple, yet incredibly flavorful green papaya salad.
I’m sure you’ve eaten this salad before; it’s a standard on any Thai, Vietnamese, Laos menu. And for good reason! Its light, refreshing, packed full of spices, herbs, and zesty flavors. But I bet most of you have never attempted to make it at home. It’s funny to me when I hear how many people love eating Southeast Asian food and yet are so scared to make it themselves. I get it- it can be an intimating cuisine. But once you understand a few flavor profiles synonymous with the region, it’s actually quite easy!
I like adding a little yuzu juice (or extract) to my recipe for another layer of citrusy pop. And it includes one of my all-time favorite ingredients: fish sauce!!!
Crunchy Green Papaya Salad
- 1 small red Thai chills, seeds and spines removed for less heat (if super sensitive to spice try jalapeno, Serrano, or Fresno chilies instead)
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 1 unripe green papaya, shredded*
- 3 tbsp. unsalted roasted peanuts, chopped
- ½ cup nuoc cham (recipe follows)
- ½ cup herb mix (mint, Thai basil, cilantro), roughly chopped
- 1 tsp yuzu juice (optional) **
- 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (preferably nuoc mam)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 garlic clove, finally minced
- 1 small Thai chili, seeded and finely chopped
** Yuzu, a citrus fruit describe to taste like a cross between orange and lime, is not synonymous with Thai recipes since it originated in China but the citrusy bite adds another layer of complexity to this dish.
Combine Nuoc cham ingredients in bowl and set aside. Shred papaya and toss with minced garlic, chili, herbs, and peanuts. Finish by tossing with nuoc cham and garnish with more herbs and lime wedges.