Now reading Isaan-Style Papaya Salad

Isaan-Style Papaya Salad

For a certain diner, the sweat-inducing, sea-funky version will supplant the Central Thai one.

The papaya salad favored in Isaan, the Northeastern region of Thailand, is not for the timid. (It’s often called som tam lao, because Laos is the likely birthplace of papaya salad and because neighbors Laos and Isaan share so much, culinary and otherwise.) The ominous dried red chiles lurking among the tangle of papaya would give many an adventurous eater pause—that is, if the dismembered, blackish crustacean hasn’t distracted the eye. Yet for a certain diner, the sweat-inducing, sea-funky version will supplant the Central Thai version as the one they forever crave with a heap of sticky rice.

Note: Salted black crab (puu khem, boo kem, or other phonetic transliterations; also called “paddy crab”) are often found frozen in the US. Your best bet is Southeast Asian–focused grocery stores.

This is excerpted from Pok Pok: Food and Stories From the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailandby Andy Ricker and JJ Goode.




Serves 4–6 as part of a meal
  • 1 T medium-size dried shrimp, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 oz palm sugar
  • 1/4 t water
  • 1 small lime (preferably a Key lime), halved through the stem
  • 3 g peeled garlic (about 1 medium clove), halved lengthwise
  • 1 g dried Thai chiles (about 4), soaked in hot water just until pliable, about 10 minutes, then drained
  • 1/2 t crab paste (black in color; should not contain oil), preferably the Pantainorasingh brand (optional)
  • 1 oz long beans, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch lengths (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 frozen whole Thai salted black crab, defrosted
  • 1 1/2 T naam plaa raa (fermented fish sauce)
  • 1 T Thai fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 T lime juice (preferably from Key limes or spiked with a small squeeze of Meyer lemon juice)
  • 1 scant T Naam Makham (Tamarind sauce)
  • 4 oz peeled, shredded green papaya (about 1 1/2 cups, lightly packed)
  • 2 oz cherry tomatoes (about 4), halved, or quartered if very large
  • 1 Wedge of white or green cabbage

Naam Phrik Makham (Tamarind Sauce)

  • 1/4 lb palm sugar, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 C Thai fish sauce
  • 1 oz seedless tamarind pulp (paste)
  • 1 1/4 C water
  • 1 T cayenne pepper


Naam Phrik Makham

Naam Phrik Makham (Tamarind Sauce)
  • 1/4 lb palm sugar, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 C Thai fish sauce
  • 1 oz seedless tamarind pulp (paste)
  • 1 1/4 C water
  • 1 T cayenne pepper
  1. Combine the palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind pulp, and water in a medium pot. Set the pot over high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately decrease the heat to maintain a simmer.

  2. Use a whisk or spoon to break up the palm sugar and tamarind pulp as they soften and cook just until the tamarind has fully softened and dissolved into the mixture, 5–8 minutes.

  3. Stir in the cayenne, turn off the heat, and let the mixture sit, stirring occasionally, until it has cooled to room temperature. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to a week.

Dry-Fry the Shrimp and Soften the Palm Sugar

  1. Heat a small dry pan or wok over medium heat, add the dried shrimp, and cook, stirring frequently, until they’re dry all the way through and slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Set them aside in a small bowl to cool. They’ll keep covered at room temperature for up to 1 week.

  2. Put the palm sugar in a small microwavable bowl, sprinkle on the 1/4 teaspoon of water, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and microwave on low just until the sugar has softened (not liquefied), 10 to 30 seconds. Pound the mixture in a mortar (or mash it in the bowl) until you have a smooth paste. Covered, it will keep soft for up to 2 days.

Make the Papaya Salad

  1. Cut one of the lime halves lengthwise into thirds, then cut the thirds in half crosswise. Set aside 3 of the pieces (reserve the remaining lime for another purpose).

  2. Combine the garlic, chiles, 1 teaspoon of the softened palm sugar, and the crab paste in a large clay mortar and pound just until you have a chunky sludge with small but visible pieces of garlic and slightly broken down chiles (do not turn the chiles into mush), 5–10 seconds.

  3. Add the 3 lime wedges and pound very lightly and briefly, just to release the juice. Add the long beans and pound lightly to bruise them (they should not break into pieces or dramatically flatten).

  4. Pry off and discard the top shell (technically, the “carapace”) from the crab, scoop out and discard the gills, rinse the crab, and briefly shake it dry. Pull the crab into two pieces. Add the crab and the shrimp to the mortar, and pound lightly just to release their flavor (don’t crush or pulverize the shrimp; the crab shell should crack but not break into pieces).

  5. Add both fish sauces, the lime juice, the tamarind water, and the papaya. The next step is easy but subtle. You want to use the pestle to barely bruise the papaya (lightly pounding at a slight angle, not directly up-and-down) for about 10 seconds, while simultaneously using a large spoon to scoop up from the bottom of the mortar, essentially tossing the papaya, palm sugar mixture, and the other ingredients as you pound. Do not smash the papaya. It should remain crisp.

  6. Add the tomatoes and pound lightly, just to release the juices. Mix briefly but well with the spoon. Spoon the contents of the mortar, liquid and all, in a low mound, and serve with the wedge of cabbage on the side.