Wherever the papaya grows red, the papaya grows green first. Originating in Laos, variations of a shredded and pounded green papaya salads exist in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all the way to Jamaica. The fundamental idea stays the same, although variations on it are endless, and a different way exists for every person making the dish. First, peel a green papaya, phok it (shredding it finely with a knife, or use a julienne peeler), tum other aromatic ingredients such as garlic, shallots, fish sauce, lime juice and bird’s eye chilies in a large mortar and pestle, add the shredded papaya, pound to combine and enjoy.
Western cooks don’t typically pound a lot – the mortar and pestle being seen as some sort of alchemist relic, or the kind of tool you saw in the bedroom of that vegan witch you dated in high school – but to Lao cooks the tum is visually iconic. It’s presence in a kitchen is an indicator that good food is made here, and properly, damnit. More than visual stimulation, the tum is an audio stimuli. “Everyone knows if you’re making a snack in the middle of the night,” Charlie says. “My step-mom likes to do the cooking in the day, and if you’re all hungover and trying to sleep it off all day that makes it hard,” adds Chris.
Chefs will tell you that the sharper your knife the better it is for your vegetables. A clean cut prevents bruising, and the exposure of sugars and oils to oxygen, so vegetables cut with a sharp knife won’t oxidize and spoil as quickly. All of that is fine and good if that’s what you’re trying to achieve, but the action of pounding and smashing does the opposite of all of that in the name of flavor. Crushing a clove of garlic, for instance, produces stronger flavored garlic than if you carefully peeled it and then diced it with a razorblade because all the oils and sugars are suddenly exposed to air, where the dicing contains the oils in the discrete pieces of garlic. Oils oxidize and become rancid with exposure to oxygen, so the crushed food must be used quickly.
So the theory of tum, the work horse of the Lao kitchen, is to pulverize aromatics together creating maximally flavourful pastes as flavor bases and sauces. Tum makhoung begins with tuming garlic, chilies, sugar breaking them up, adding lime juice and fish sauce and/or padaek (and possible dozens of other ingredients), tum some more, and then add your shredded papaya, tum and toss to combine.
Again, the idea comes up again that you’re not trying to necessarily balance flavors. A clean, balanced papaya salad with an equal ratio of sweet, salty, savoury, and sour is popular (as it is likely the kind you’ll eat in most Thai restaurants as tom sum) but people often make this dish to their own preference. You’re just as likely to taste one Lao person’s tum makhoung and find it spicy and salty with funky accents and a bit of acidity, as you are to taste another’s to find it sweet and sour. There are many ingredients that can be added to the dish, such as shrimp paste, crab paste, raw Thai eggplants, unripe cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, and many more, allowing for many variations on the dish. It borrows well too, allowing for seasonal local ingredients wherever you are to find their way into it. Sometimes it is eaten with cold rice noodles, which are a great way to pick up the funky sauce at the bottom of the dish, and also a way to cut the sometimes extreme heat. Almost always it is eaten with crunchy pork rinds.
This papaya salad was full flavored, made with padaek, fish sauce, crab paste, shrimp paste, thai eggplants, long beans, carrots, lime juice, and unripe gooseberries as an Ontario early summer variation. And eight chilies.
There’s no one true version of this dish. It’s a Lao staple food, eaten almost daily, with as many versions as their are Lao cooks.