What is Papaya Salad?

K.C. Bruning

Papaya salad is a popular Thai street food made of the unripened, shredded papaya fruit and served in a sweet and spicy vinegar-based sauce. It is also known as som tam and tam bak hung. The major ingredients of papaya salad are green papaya, vinegar, fish sauce, lime, chili, and palm sugar. It is most commonly served with barbecue chicken and sticky rice. Papaya salad is also common in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

A papaya.
A papaya.

Other ingredients typically found in papaya salad include garlic, shrimp paste, dried shrimp, yardlong beans, and tomatoes. The salad may also have brined crabs, which are small black creatures commonly found in the local rice fields. Some recipes also include tamarind juice and peanuts. Both Thai and Laotian versions of the dish can have hog plums. Though they are far less common, a similar salad can also be made with other unripened fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, mangoes, and carrots.

Palm sugar is an ingredient in papaya salad.
Palm sugar is an ingredient in papaya salad.

Though papaya salad is most often served with sticky rice and chicken, it can accompany raw vegetables or be served over rice noodles. It is also served with crispy pork rinds as a snack food. The primary purpose of any food served with papaya salad is to manage the spiciness of the dish. Papaya salad is prepared in such a way that the spices are absorbed by the fruits and vegetables in the salad. On its own, unripened papaya is quite bland.

To prepare the salad, a firm papaya is peeled and shredded into thin ribbons. It is then soaked in a mixture of vinegar and sugar so that it can absorb the flavors. The process gives the fruit a lightly pickled flavor. Next, the seasonings and other accompaniments are added to the papaya and sauce mixture. The garlic and chilis are ground into a paste. Then the other ingredients are gradually added, pounded until they bruise, so that they can soak up the flavor of the spices. Papaya salad can be served immediately, but takes on a deeper, more complex flavor when left to sit — either for a few hours or up to a day.

Papaya salad is a common street food in Thailand. Customers usually order the salad to their tastes, choosing variations ranging from the amount of spiciness to the other ingredients in the salad. As the brined crab often served with papaya salad is not cooked, the government of Thailand has regularly warned its citizens of its potential health dangers, including risk of hepatitis.

Rice noodles may be served with papaya salad.
Rice noodles may be served with papaya salad.

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Discussion Comments


What kind of vinegar is used in the papaya salad? Regular or what? And if you use the vinegar, do you leave out the lime juice?

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