Three Bites: Unripe and Irresistible

Marilyn HawkesFebruary 20, 2020
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Photography by Angelina Aragon
Photography by Angelina Aragon

A staple of Southeast Asian cooking, the green papaya salad is not what you think it is.

Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery

8787 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
If you spot green papaya salad on a restaurant menu, don’t expect the cloying flesh of supermarket papaya. Picked before fully ripe, green papaya has the firm, zingy consistency of a radish or jicama, and is beloved in Thailand as a salad centerpiece. To make her green papaya salad, or somtum ($11, pictured), Soi 4 chef-owner Dannie Lum shreds green papaya and bathes the crisp fruit in a dressing made of palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice, and then adds fresh garlic and Thai chiles, Chinese long beans, cherry tomatoes and a sprinkle of peanuts. Lum’s somtum hits all the important marks – sweet, sour, salty and spicy. But the real secret is palm sugar, the less sweet cousin of refined white sugar, which will “give you a different taste,” Lum says.

Bánh Mì Bistro Vietnamese Eatery

2340 W. Bell Rd., Phoenix
At Bánh Mì Bistro, the green papaya salad ($5), known in Vietnamese as gui du du, departs somewhat in flavor from its Thai counterpart. The long, white shreds of green papaya remain the same, but the more subtle Vietnamese version boasts a princely amount of coarsely shredded carrots and slivers of onion topped with thin slices of boiled shrimp and crushed roasted peanuts. Bánh Mì’s tangy dressing complements the green papaya, but lacks the pungent, sometimes overpowering garlic found in the Thai version. The salad is flecked with bits of fresh cilantro and mint, two great additions that brighten the crunchy papaya and carrot shreds.

Glai Baan

2333 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix
When Pornsupak “Cat” Bunnag opened Glai Baan in 2017, she put somtum ($10) on the menu because it was a favorite dish of hers in Thailand. Bunnag’s version is traditional, with bean sprout-size shreds of papaya shocked in an ice bath to maximize crispiness and then immersed in a tart, sweet and salty lime juice dressing with Thai chiles with a heavy dose of garlic. Sprinkled with cherry tomatoes and Chinese long beans, the shreds are topped with smoky oven-roasted peanuts. The salad, big enough to share, is decorated with a sturdy wedge of cabbage and a trio of airy chicharrónes for yet another layer of texture. For a kick of protein, you can add cubes of crispy fried pork belly ($2), but the somtum is dandy all by itself.