Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thai Cooking School Recap and Recipe: Papaya Salad (Som Tam)

 By Alka

Some of the best experiences of my SE Asia vacation were the cooking classes I took in Thailand, both in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai.  In Bangkok, we went to May Kaidees vegetarian cooking school, and in Chiang Mai, we went to Thai Farm Cooking School.  Both were great experiences, and I would recommend either of them.

 The first part of the day was visiting local markets to get our ingredients:
Many kinds of rice

Mmm...Thai spicy

Shopping for groceries in Bangkok

Then we would head to the kitchens and learn how to make 5-6 different dishes.  Most were the classic Thai curries and noodle dishes.   One of the most fun parts was using the traditional mortar and pestle to make our own curry paste. 

Working on my curry

Anju taking out her aggressions on the curry paste

The final product, massaman curry!

Our homemade Thai feast

After class, we all sat down and feasted on our creations.  The picture shows a sauteed vegetable dish, a curry, papaya salad, a noodle dish, and steamed rice.  We also made dessert, usually mango or pumpkin in coconut milk. 

Of course, I had to come home and recreate some of these recipes for our Foodist Colony guests.  I chose to do the Massaman curry and the papaya salad, which we served at our Around the World Lunch.   Papaya salad, or som tam in Thai,  is available everywhere in Thailand, in many different variations, on the streets or in fancy restaurants.  In fact, Laos and Cambodia, the two other countries I visited on my southeast asian trip, have their own versions.  It was my favorite dish, and I ate it at least once a day while there.  Not only is it delicious, but it is very healthy, with virtually no fat.  Unfortunately, it is often traditionally made with shrimp, so as I'm vegetarian, I couldn't always get my som tam fix while travelling.  One of the things we learned from Mai was how to make a delicious vegetarian som tam.   I was thrilled when I tried it at home; it really was very similar to the papaya salad I had in Thailand. 

See below for the recipe

The massaman curry and papaya salad at our supper club event
Vegetarian Som Tam (Papaya Salad)
Traditionally papaya salad is made in a large mortar and pestle, and the ingredients are pounded together by hand.  I improvised at home using a wooden salad bowl, and a regular pestle.  You could also use a metal bowl, or probably even plastic.  Don't use glass though, as it may break when you pound it.  If you don't have a pestle, you could also use any solid sturdy object such as a rolling pin, or a large wooden spoon. 

1-2 red chiles
8-10 green beans
1/2 sliced fresh tomato
1/2 tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp roasted cashew nuts or peanuts
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
2 tbsp soy sauce (ideally a mixture of dark and light soy sauce)
1 tbsp palm sugar (can substitute brown sugar)
1/2 green papaya, grated*  . 

1. Trim the ends of the chiles and green beans and then cut in about 1-2 inch pieces, to make the pounding easier.  If you want it less spicy, remove the seeds from the chiles first, and start with 1.

2. Using a mortar and pestle (or your designated substitutes), crush together the chiles, green beans, tomatoes, garlic, and nuts.  It takes about 10 minutes.  Think of it as your arm workout:)  You should see the ingredients come together and get paste like, but still be chunky

3. Add the lime juice, soy sauce, and sugar, mix with the chile-green bean paste to make a dressing

4. Add the grated papaya (or other vegetable) to the mixture and toss.  Each strand of papaya should be slightly coated with the dressing.  You will probably end up with some liquid at the bottom, this was my favorite part of the salad:)

5.  Taste for seasoning.   Salad is best served immediately.  If you would like to make ahead, make the dressing and grate the papaya, but keep them separate. Toss together right before serving. 

This dish is a great representation of Thai food, as it balances the tastes of sour (lime juice), sweet (sugar), salty (soy sauce), and spicy (chiles).   In Thailand, the 4 components are set out on the table and diners are encouraged to add components to customize the taste as they desire. 

* Note green papaya is sometimes available in an Asian grocery.  Regular orange fleshed papaya will not work for this recipe.  If green papaya is not available, other firm-fleshed fruits/vegetables may be used such as green mango, carrots, cucumber, radish, parsnips, or beets.

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