Vietnamese Papaya Salad – Made from Love (And Green Papayas)

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)

Shrimp crackers
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?”)

[polldaddy poll=”6649223″]

But hopefully, I’m back to my normal schedule of posting at least once a week. As always, thanks for your patience!

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17 thoughts on “Vietnamese Papaya Salad – Made from Love (And Green Papayas)

  1. Fay Gaskin

    Glad you didn’t commit blogger suicide. 🙂 You didn’t do all those things in that poll, did you? I thought of only two of them. Am I right?
    Looks like after eating that salad, I would be full for the rest of the day. Looks so satisfying….. yumyum.

    1. James Post author

      Hi Fay. (Un)fortunately, yes, I did all those things. Which kind of sort of excuses my unexcusable absence… And yes, the salad is delicious and filling without feeling heavy. I could eat it every day!
      James recently posted..Geocaching VietnamMy Profile

  2. Chú Bách

    I made papaya salad with beef jerky for my two daughters and their Canadian husbands and they loved it. It is a variation of your salad but easier to make. Just replace the shrimp and pork with shredded beef jerky, and the herbs with Thai basil. I bought the beef jerky at Costco here in Ottawa. I will let you write the recipe in your next post. Please chill out after your two hectic months.

    1. James Post author

      Hi Chu Bach!

      Yes, that sounds delicious as well. I haven’t been able to find really good beef jerky here, though. It’s either too hard / dry or too moist. Maybe I just don’t know where to look! I have to admit, though, I love the taste of pork. But I’ll try the beef jerky when I need a quick fix!
      James recently posted..Photo of the Week – Vietnamese Family MealsMy Profile

  3. Mary Moss

    Glad to see that you’re back to posting. I love your writing, photography and style:-) And, I can’t wait til I get to HCMC!

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Mary, you’re the best! How are plans for the move coming? I know it took me quite a while to get everything set up, most of all finding a place to live that wasn’t too noisy. I firmly believe that’s the key to sanity in HCMC where horn honking is a pastime for most…
      James recently posted..A Trip to the Supermarket (Now With Photos!)My Profile

      1. Mary Moss

        I’m only having panic attacks about twice per week:-) Still have lots of practical questions regarding accessing money. I opened a Schwab account for ATM withdrawal. I’m going to have some $ direct deposited money while I’m in Vietnam. Should I direct deposit into Schwab or direct deposit into a different bank (like ING) and transfer only what I need when I need it into my Schwab account? Perhaps I’m overthinking this.

        1. James Post author

          Hi Mary:
          This is a tough one. I think it all depends on how much you need. The banks here have very little insurance (USD 2,5000 per account holder, not per account!) There are a few “international” banks but because they’re licensed here, they also do not need to insure beyond that. I recently opened an account at ANZ which is a bank from Australia / New Zealand but same problem. I see Citibank ATMS here but they act independently. So if you don’t need to bring too much (ie. less than USD 20,000?) I’d just put it into one of the bigger Vietnamese banks (Sacombank or Vietcombank) and hope for the best. Term deposits (1 month or more) earn 2% on USD and 9% on VND. Otherwise, constantly withdrawing money from an overseas account may be expensive. A friend withdrew using an HSBC ATM and was charged USD 5.
          James recently posted..Photo of the Week – The Secret to Happiness Is…My Profile

        2. Dyanne@TravelnLass

          No, no, no Mary – you don’t want to put your direct deposit dough into a VN bank (it’s bad enough you’ll have to have your teach dong deposited in one).

          Just direct deposit it into any bank you like, but… then you’ll want to transfer funds online to your Schwab account for withdrawing funds at ATMs ‘cuz, as I said, Schwab is the ONLY bank I know of that will reimburse you for any ATM fees. I mean, that’s why I suggested you open a Schwab account in the first place. In fact, unless you have good reason to direct deposit first into some other bank, why not simply direct deposit into the Schwab account to begin with?

          Only other tip I’d suggest is to be sure to have more than one bank account/ATM card. Indeed, preferably three or more – at different banks. That way if the ATM machine chews up your card (or you lose it/it gets stolen) you have a backup card or two when you have to cancel the card and/or the bank decides to freeze your funds ‘cuz of suspected fraud activity. That’s why best multiples at DIFFERENT banks, as they might freeze ALL your accounts at an especially squeamish bank.
          Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..ROBBED in Vietnam! (a.k.a. Thanksgiving Foolishness)My Profile

  4. Helen

    Hey Jimmy, the Lao papaya salad is called Tam Mak Houng . . . it is very different from the Viet version . . . I’ll have to give yours a try . . .

  5. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Yippeeeee! I just yesterday returned from a near month more or less off the grid in Oz (to no less than 552 blog posts in my RSS reader) and… woo-HOO! 5 posts by the Icarus lad – YAY! Seriously dude, I was beginning to wonder if I best have the blogger suicide hotline give you a jingle (and thanks for the link). 😉

    (and of course I voted for “all of the above” seein’s how I had an inside track…) 😉
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..ROBBED in Vietnam! (a.k.a. Thanksgiving Foolishness)My Profile


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