Islander decides when life gives you a hurricane, make a papaya salad
A large papaya tree in the backyard of my Galveston home was toppled by Hurricane Harvey. Given the horrific suffering and heroic rescues we were witnessing on the television during that epic flood, I realize that complaining about my broken tree is a little like whining about a hangnail in an emergency room full of bomb blast victims. We were lucky to have lost so little in such a massive catastrophe. Still, there were a whole lot of papayas on that tree — I weighed them out on my kitchen scale. It came out to about 38 pounds.
Watching rescuers struggle to get people out of their submerged automobiles on live television makes a pretty convincing case for “sheltering in place.” Our island house didn’t get flooded and we only lost electricity for a short spell. But heeding the advice of the authorities, we remained in the house for four days straight.
After a whole lot of binge-watching Netflix, solving crossword puzzles, playing video golf with the kids and reading books, boredom set in. Looking for something productive to do, I started cooking.
I made a triple batch of banana bread with nine overripe bananas I found in the freezer, made a French potage out of all the vegetables wilting in my crisper drawer, and baked a loaf of country white bread to go with it.
During a break in the rain, I took some photos of my broken papaya tree and posted one of those images on Instagram, with a request for green papaya recipes. I was rewarded with a recipe for som tum. This cold salad dish is one of my favorite things to order in a Thai restaurant. I knew it was made with shredded green papayas, but I wondered about the logistics. How do you shred a papaya? What about the rest of the ingredients? I started looking for recipes.
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? Especially if you have nothing better to do.
The recipe I settled on suggested that I peel the papaya, remove the seeds and shred it with a julienne blade on a mandoline slicer. But the fruit was so hard that, after a few test swipes, I concluded I would end up bloody doing it this way. A hand grater was equally hopeless. But a lot of rummaging around in the accessory drawer uncovered the grating disc for the Cuisinart — and that did the trick. I soon had an enormous pile of shredded papaya.
The recipe also included some exotic ingredients like fish sauce and dried shrimp that I was lucky enough to have on hand.
Red Boat extra virgin fish sauce, made with nothing but anchovies and salt, fermented and then lightly pressed, is a favorite at my house. It’s a clean and clear liquid with a flavor that reminds me of Worcestershire — which also contains fermented anchovies. With lime juice and some chiles, it makes an awesome Vietnamese dipping sauce. It’s hard to find, but you can buy it online. redboatfishsauce.com/shop/
I bought the dried shrimp a year ago while my daughter, Katie Walsh, was writing a story about international foods in Galveston for Coast Monthly. Brazilian chef Geraldo Shaun is shown in the lead photograph of the article preparing a fish dish called moqueca. After the photo shoot was over, he sent Katie home with the dish, so I got to taste some. It was one of the richest fish stews I have ever eaten, and I resolved immediately to cook some myself. The recipe called for dried shrimp, so I promptly went and bought a package. I never did get around to cooking the moqueca, so I still had the dried shrimp in the back of my refrigerator. The shrimp is fermented before it’s dried, so it doesn’t really go bad if you refrigerate it. It sure smells funky though. I picked the chile peppers from bushes in my yard.
In Asia, you make the dressing for papaya salad by pounding the savory ingredients in a mortar with a pestle. My mortar is in the shop, and since I already got the Cuisinart dirty, I just whizzed the dressing ingredients in it with a regular cutting blade.
My wife pronounced my papaya salad better than the ones you get at Thai restaurants. I have since tried several recipes, including one from the cookbook “Taste of Thai” that doesn’t include any dried shrimp.
After using about 10 pounds of green papayas, I took the other 28 pounds to a dinner party attended by a whole bunch of Cambodian friends. They gladly took them home — they told me their favorite version of som tum is made Laotian-style with fermented purple crabs. I’ve had it before. It tastes great, but it’s kind of weird to keep fishing big chunks of crab shell out of your mouth.
Here is my som tum adapted from a variety of sources using a Cuisinart and other shortcuts.
Raw papaya shreds are bland and tasteless but wonderfully crunchy; you add the spicy ingredients to make your salad as zesty as you want. If you don’t have any papaya trees, you can buy green papayas at an Asian grocery store. You can also substitute grated cabbage, which turns the dish into a sort of Thai coleslaw.
Harvey’s Papaya Salad
1 medium green (unripe) papaya, 1½ to 2 pounds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 serrano or 10 chile pequins, stemmed and crushed
1 tablespoon brown sugar
5 dried shrimp (optional)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce (Red Boat preferred)
1 large tomato or several cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Handful of green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
Lettuce for serving (optional)
3 tablespoons salted Virginia peanuts, coarsely chopped for garnish
Peel the papaya, cut them in half lengthwise and remove the white immature seeds. Cut the papaya into pieces that will fit in the top of your Cuisinart. With the grating disc, process the papaya into shreds. Put the grated papaya in a bowl in the refrigerator. You should have about 6 cups.
If using dried shrimp, soak it first in very hot water for 5 minutes. Remove the shrimp and chop coarsely. Discard the water.
Put the garlic, chilies, sugar and soaked shrimp (if using) into the Cuisinart and using the cutting blade, process to a paste. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, tomatoes and green beans and pulse to chop the vegetables into coarse chunks. Transfer the dressing to a bowl.
Remove the papaya from the refrigerator and press in a strainer to remove any water. Combine the papaya and dressing in a mixing bowl and toss thoroughly. Taste for seasoning. Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour while flavors blend, then toss again before serving.
Serve on a bed of lettuce garnished with chopped peanuts — either on individual salad plates or on one large platter.