Thai Papaya Salad (Som Tam Esan)


Papaya Salad is my favorite salad–spicy and served with a side of sticky rice, it makes a tasty and healthy meal.

I learned to make it at a Thai buddhist temple in Utah.  Unfortunately, it was yet another rough period in my life, my worst period for rightful guilt, so I didn’t actually enjoy my time there like I wanted.  I also felt trapped (which I still do, but in a different way) and didn’t feel like I deserved to have them help me.

However, I still enjoyed the food and the rituals.  I do miss listening to the monks chant in person.  While there are plenty of videos out there, it’s not the same as being there.

IMG_20150213_190224Several years back my partner found Thailand: The Beautiful Cookbook, which is indeed a very beautiful cookbook with truly authentic Thai food and information about the regions and culture.  Here I found my favorite recipe for papaya salad that helped me tweak the version I learned.  I prefer to use tamarind over lime juice, as it helps balance out the heat, and I have yet to prepare it with green beans.  Good thing is, I’ve found that Thai recipes are more of a guide and it’s typical to change up the ingredients and their quantities to your own taste.  Read about the Thai Food Philosophy at, which I found to be helpful.  Our local area has a strong Hmong community, and the Hmong people are from a region that covers Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, and they’ve tweaked recipes from those three countries into their own.

The recipe from the cookbook is to the right, my tweaked recipe is below.  You will more than likely need to get green papaya at an Asian market, along with the tamarind and fish sauce.  The sauces you may get lucky and find a grocery store with a real asian section, as I have been surprised at the selection of some stores I’ve visited recently.  You will probably need to get the Thai chilis from the asian market as well, and I recommend fresh–but you can naturally grow your own as well!  My preferred peeling and shredding tools are from the Asian market as well.

The Tamarind concentrate I use (sorry for the blurred pic).

Papaya Salad (Som Tam Esan)

1 medium dark green papaya

4 garlic clovesIMG_20150213_183855

6 green Thai chilies (if you are brave–I use 3, which is still pretty spicy)  Red chilies work fine if you don’t have access to green

2 tomatoes, cut into wedges or a handful of grape tomatoes cut in half (I usually add extra tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped green beans (optional)

2 tablespoons fish sauce (can be omitted if you are vegetarian or the fish odor is offensive, just use more salt to taste)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup lime or tamarind juice (my preference is tamarind, and it may be called concentrate or paste as well)

  1. Peel the papaya and rinse with running water to remove the acid, then dry with paper towels (can be omitted–I haven’t found a difference when I’ve skipped it).  Remove the seeds and then shred/grate the papaya and set aside.
  2. Place the garlic cloves and the chilies in a mortar and mash with a pestle until crushed into chunks.  Add the tomatoes and lightly mash to “bruise” them–this seems to make the tomato more susceptible to absorbing the other flavors, plus helps impart the tomato flavor.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients and combine everything with the pestle and a spoon.
  4. Serve cold, preferably with sticky rice.


Integrating the tomatoes with the chilies and garlic

All photos in this post are my own.


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