Green (Unripe) Papaya

I know I say it in practically every post, but I LOVE to peruse the isles and produce sections of any market I can find. This week I scored a green (unripe) papaya! Of course I have never had one and, without a smart phone like most people, I had to actually ask a living soul what they like to do with it. The wonderful owner at Dragon Market suggested slicing it into thin sticks and dressing it with fish sauce and garlic. I then did Google this at home and found it to be a VERY popular Thai use for green papaya. They call it Som Tum (pronounced like Rome Come, but with the S and T respectfully.) It is of course made with fish sauce and garlic, as well as scallions, tomatoes, shrimp, and crushed nuts. Along with sugar and chilies it is supposed to be made using a large mortar and pestle to aromatize and blend everything together. Thus it is named Som meaning ‘sour’ for the unripened fruit and Tum referring to the mortar and pestle.

Hand Sliced Green Papaya Sticks

I am going to have to admit that I am probably, and sadly, way too American to appreciate fish sauce. I went home and tasted the fish sauce I have and pretty much shook my head, “No way.” In fact I had the idea so heavy on my head that I even (kid-you-not!) had dreams about fish sauce and markets and a bunch of other unexplainable events… but re-occurring? Fish sauce. Seriously, who dreams about fish sauce?! Maybe I need to lean off the food researching a little. Shouldn’t I be dreaming about Jesus or some other things way more important?

Either way I had two choices. Either suck in my inhibitions and work with the fish sauce, or make a salad that, though perhaps similar to Som Tum, is my own recipe and not bother trying and make excuses about how I changed the original to make it my own rendition… Simply name it for what it is; a different recipe all together.

To start I would need to prep the papaya. I don’t happen to have one of those cool fruit slicing tools that I got to see ‘Mrs. Dragon Gifts’ use for her traditionally made papaya salad, and don’t have a decent mandolin, so I just took my time and sliced the strips by hand.

Then, for my first attempt at a sauce, I started with the basic ingredients for the popular salad. Yup. Too much fish sauce for me. Don’t get me wrong, I know that they use fish sauce in all those wonderful things I like to eat at the Mongolian barbecue, and definitely at our favorite sushi spot, but in this instance there is way too much for me to enjoy. Handle yes, but I don’t want to smell like fish sauce the next time I kiss Andrew.

This special tool, used for mashing food for babies, is affectionately known as the Flamingo Foot. It was also perfect for softening the tamarind paste.

Okay, so plan #2: Keep the lime and even the fish sauce, but minimize it. I had recently picked up a package of wet tamerind and decided that I would also use the very classic Southeast Asian ingredient, coconut, to tie it all together. I was more than a little skeptical. So much so that when I had Andrew try it and he replied with a very enthusiastically, ‘That’s Good!” I literally threw my hands in the air with amazement at my success.

So for the last step, not having a large mortar and pestle, I tried my hand at a rolling pin and ziplock method, for crushing the papaya strips. Not finding much success I finally just gave up and used a meat tenderizer. To be totally honest I don’t think it really made a difference. I think the original reason for the use of the mortar has as much to do with blending the flavors as with the crushing of the nuts and papaya. I say get it done however you can, however you want, and however you desire.

In the end I found that the green papaya was great. It’s simple with basically no flavor, (I had expected it to be really sour,) and is only a little but chewy; not unlike carrot strands. The sauce though was a total win! I think it would be great on a variety of foods such as jicama, cabbage, or broccoli slaw. It would also make a great spread for a sandwich. Now that being said, Andrew and I both agree that the best part ended up being the addition of the cashews. They really drew the sour of the tamarind and the sweetness and creaminess of the coconut in with their saltiness. The texture was prefect to go with the julienne fruit!


Green Papaya Salad with Tamarind, Coconut, and Lime Dressing

By:semiserious chefs
Serves:4-6 side dishes


  • 1 green papaya, thinly julienne
  • 1 cup cashews, roasted with salt,  crushed
  • 1 T wet tamarind paste + 2 T warm water to soften*
  • 1 T lime juice
  • 1/4 t fish sauce (optional)**
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced and crushed
  • 1/4 cup coconut cream
  • 1/4 t gochujang or red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)
  • fresh Thai basil and/or mint to garnish, chopped

*To soften the tamarind paste I added some warm water and funky shaped fork that I use for mashing baby food. (See picture above.) You can also press it through a mesh sieve, but you will then need to add the water to your mix. The goal is to remove large pulp and any seeds.
**If you omit this, you will probably want to add a bit of salt.


  1. Peal and thinly slice the green papaya. Then either pound in a large mortar and pestle or crush using a ziplock bag and downward pressure on a rolling pin… OR a meat tenderizer.
  2. Crush the cashews, or gently grind with food processor.
  3. Soften the tamarind into a bowl then add the lime, fish sauce, sugar, mashed garlic, coconut cream, and gochujang.
  4. In a bowl, mix the sauce with the papaya and cashews.
  5. Garnish with fresh chopped Thai basil and/or mint.

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