The first time I ordered a green papaya salad I was out to lunch with some coworkers. It was a hot summer day and a salad sounded good. But when it arrived, I was mystified…where was the papaya? The waitress explained that the white thin strips were the papaya. Hmm. It wasn’t what I was expecting. But I ate it, and once I let go of the expectation that it would be more fruit-like, I thought it was delicious. It had an interesting, complex flavor, and I’d never eaten anything quite like it.
Green papayas don’t taste anything like ripe papayas. They don’t really have much flavor of their own. All the interesting flavor in a green papaya salad comes from the punch of lime and fish sauce in the dressing.
Fish sauce is defined by its deep “umami” flavor. Umami is one of the five basic tastes, (the other four being salt, sweet, sour, and bitter). Umami is deeply savory and found naturally in foods such as fish sauce, beef broth, and Parmesan cheese. But the processed food industry adds MSG (monosodium glutamate) to cheaper ingredients to heighten the umami flavor.
Sally Fallon Morell has a recipe for fermented fish sauce in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions, but if you’re not yet up to making your own, Vietnamese Red Boat Fish Sauce is an excellent store-bought choice. It’s an all-natural, first press, extra-virgin fish sauce that contains no added water, preservatives, or MSG. Red Boat even came out on top when The Daily Brine did a fish sauce taste test.
Until recently, I always ordered green papaya salad whenever we ate at Thai restaurants. Then I found out that papaya is one of the ten GMO crops. (FYI: Of the ten GMO crops, only two are fruits: papaya and apple.) The good news is that certified organic papayas are non-GMO. The bad news is that these are hard to find.
Who knew that papayas would be a GMO crop? Knowing that papayas are GMO has decreased my pleasure at ordering that green papaya salad, but I miss the tangy, refreshing quality of the dish.
Not that all green papaya salads are created equal. I once ordered one at a low-end Thai restaurant. To be honest, it was more of a takeout place in a strip mall. The green papaya salad I ordered was memorable for one thing—the taste of fish sauce was overwhelming, and not in a good way! A perfect example of too much of a good thing.
How to enjoy this refreshing, tangy salad at home? Growing my own papayas isn’t an option as I don’t live in the right climate for it. What I do have right now is a bumper crop of cucumbers, zucchini, and string beans. I also just acquired a spiralizer, so I decided to try a green papaya salad without the green papaya! (Though I’m slow to add new gadgets to my kitchen, I’m a convert to the spiralizer, which I use to turn zucchini into faux-noodles, often called zoodles these days.)
Here’s my home version of green papaya salad, or in this case, Missing the Green Papaya Salad.
Missing the Green Papaya Salad
—This salad serves 6–8.
For the veggies:
4 cups zucchini, shredded or spiralized
2 cups cucumber, shredded or spiralized
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1 cup green beans, sliced vertically into 2-inch lengths
½ cup fresh tomato, chopped
For the dressing:
¼ cup lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon garlic, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon coconut sugar
½ teaspoon salt
For the topping:
2 tablespoons peanuts, roasted and chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or finely diced hot peppers (optional, for those who like it hot)
- Place prepped vegetables in a bowl. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, mix the dressing ingredients. Pour over the vegetables and mix well.
- Just before serving, sprinkle salad with peanuts and, if using, red pepper flakes or hot peppers.
Image from iStock/tortoon.