The Vietnamese call this generation the “Instant Noodle Generation”, speaking to the tendency of people today wanting everything now and fast. This applies to everything from economics (Been eyeing that 64” TV? Go on and take it home! We’ll bill you later!) to family relations, ie. youths consumed with the latest technology and fashion trends while eschewing the traditions of their forefathers.
But it’s also true of literal food. I’m always surprised to see so many instant foods available at my local Vietnamese supermarket. Instant “pho” broth. Powdered 3-in-1 coffee. Never heard of it? It’s instant coffee + creamer + sugar, all the rage in Asia. And the list goes on.
Hardly anyone I know that’s my age can cook traditional Vietnamese dishes anymore. It’s all restaurants and frozen dinners. That’s why I was really happy to go a family-style gathering with a bunch of great friends recently. It reminded me of my own family get-togethers when I was a kid. All the women in the kitchen, led by my grandmother, bringing out scrumptious dish after dish, until there was literally no more space on the table, while the kids ran around wrecking havoc and the men talked about jobs, houses and tennis.
One of the dishes we had was a delicious papaya salad. So refreshingly light on a hot day yet deceptively easy to make. Vietnamese papaya salad is different from the Thai Som Tam (you’ll find no tomatoes or string beans here, and it’s not crushed in a big mortar) or the Lao Lap. Compared to other Asian papaya salads, it’s elegant in its simplicity. Which is why I roll my eyes when I see recipes on the web which throw in a ton of extra ingredients to “fancify” it, but trust me, you don’t need all that. Stick to the basics. It’ll be one of the best salads you’ve ever tasted.
Cooking time: 30 minutes if you multi-task
Here’s what you need. (Like all good cooks, no real measurements…)
Green papaya, shredded
Medium-sized shrimp, boiled then de-shelled, cleaned, cut in half lengthwise
Pork belly, boiled then sliced
½ cup water
½ cup sugar
½ cup fish sauce
Garlic, finely minced
Lime juice (or cider vinegar)
Chilies, finely sliced (optional)
Crispy fried shallots or roasted peanuts
Thai basil, cilantro and mint leaves
Boil the pork belly (as with everything, a little bit of fat makes it all the better) with a pinch of salt and sugar for about 20 minutes and slice. For the shrimp, boil for about 5 minutes, de-shell, remove the vein and slice lengthwise. In this type of salad, the meat / seafood is almost a garnish in itself, so you don’t need a lot. One piece for every forkful of salad is plenty.
While those are going, start working with your green, unripe papaya. Peel it and shred the flesh into long strips. It needs to be unripe so that it’s crunchy and easier to work with. Here in Vietnam, it’s sold already shredded for your convenience, but if not, it’s easy enough to do on your own. (If you want to impress, scoop the flesh out and keep the shell for presentation later.) Some people may find the taste of green papaya slightly bitter. Personally, I don’t at all, but if you do, simply leave the shredded papaya in a cold bath with a bit of lemon and salt for about 30 minutes before draining and patting completely dry.
If you don’t have access to green papaya, don’t fret. My mom sometimes made it with spaghetti squash and it was almost as good with a similarly sweet, crunchy texture. (Just remember to cook it slightly underdone so that the flesh is still firm when you separate the strands.) You can also add shredded carrots for color, but since we’re keeping this nice and easy, let’s say carrots are totally optional. I didn’t have them today and didn’t miss them one bit.
Good news is you’re done with the salad. It’s literally that easy.
Bad news is that it’s now on to the dressing, the make-or-break component of the dish.
Take one part water and bring to a boil. If you’re only using one large papaya, one part is about half a cup. Remove from heat. Add one part sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add one part fish sauce, about a tablespoon of minced garlic, a few slices of chili pepper and the juice from a couple of limes (in a pinch, you can substitute with cider vinegar). The dressing should be tangy (from the limes), salty (from the fish sauce) and sweet (from the sugar). The Vietnamese will actually use twice as much fish sauce but that may be a bit too much for Western palates. In any case, the papaya will absorb a lot of the flavor so don’t worry if it tastes a bit strong at this point. If you ask nine Vietnamese cooks how to make fish sauce dressing, you’ll have ten different proportions. Some prefer it saltier, others more sour. So don’t worry too much about the exact measurements. Experiment and you’ll soon find out what tastes good to you.
Toss the pork, shrimp, papaya and dressing together. Throw in some finely chopped mint and Thai basil. Let sit for about 5-10 minutes while the papaya absorbs the dressing. While that’s happening, finely slice some shallots and fry until crispy. Another great addition is the shrimp crackers. These are available at any Asian food store. They come in a box and the shrimp crackers are about the size of a quarter, brittle and dense, but when you deep fry them, they magically puff up in seconds. I never tired of watching them fry up as a kid. It’s an edible science experiment. Drain and set aside.
Drain the salad and arrange on a plate (or for those Martha Stewart types, into the papaya shell you saved from earlier). Pick out some of the shrimp halves and flip them over, red side facing out, for maximum effect. Throw on a few sprigs of cilantro and add the shrimp crackers on the side. It’s literally that easy and delicious every time.
The Vietnamese have a saying: Một cây làm chẳng nên non, nhưng ba cây chụm lại nên hòn núi cao.
It literally means: One tree does not a mountain make, but three trees together make a tall mountain. It’s a more poetic version of the English expression, “Many hands make a load light”, and it perfectly speaks to the camaraderie, laughter and togetherness in the traditional Vietnamese kitchen, multiple generations bonding over a well-cooked meal. Here’s to your own family dinners being as equally delightful.
Have your say. Is there a dish that makes you think of family?
* For regular readers, you may have noticed that I’ve been quietly absent for about two months. Thanks for the many comments and emails. (A sample comment from a fellow blogger from Vietnam who poignantly asked, “Seriously dude – are you trying to commit blogger suicide?”)
But hopefully, I’m back to my normal schedule of posting at least once a week. As always, thanks for your patience!