The time has come for the domestic partner (DP) to learn how to make tham maak thang (spicy cucumber salad), rather than hassle me all the time. Don’t get me wrong – I love that he loves Lao food. But he is obsessed with the stuff. Actually, he prefers the green papaya version, but it isn’t readily available in this town. I have never met anyone who wanted to eat this dish every single day, twice a day. That is a serious statement, considering how much Lao people love it.
Learning how to make spicy papaya/cucumber salad is a right of passage. It has taken me years to balance the flavors properly, mainly because no one teaches you exactly how much of what ingredient to put in the mix. Measurements also vary depending on how much cucumber/papaya you are using. There are almost as many taste preferences as there are personalities. Some people prefer a more sour note; others like it a little sweeter or more savory. The versions vary depending if you are from the North or South, whether you are from Laos or Thailand. Sometimes fermented crab sauce is used in lieu of fish. There are also versions made with long bean, green eggplant, or carrots. Most importantly, the dish should be SPICY. How spicy depends on your tolerance, but remember: too mild or too hot and you have ruined the flavor entirely. You could also potentially hurt yourself.
Making tham anything involves mastering specific techniques: chopping and slicing (fák) the fruit into uniform pieces without obliterating it; or working the mortar and pestle (tham) without slinging a chili pepper seed into your own eye. (I have done it, and it isn’t pleasant.) Some people might say the uniformity isn’t important – not according to my mother. Not only is the presentation diminished, but if your chunks are too large, they won’t have an even coating of flavor. You can use a julienne peeler for papaya and get consistent strips, but Mom says that is cheating. Watching her fák papaya with a knife as a kid always made me feel inferior and also afraid that I would chop off my own fingers if I attempted it.
As the video suggests, I am not a very patient cooking instructor; and DP does not take instructions well. It goes without saying that he is not using proper fák-ing techniques. The results were pretty good, however, for his first batch.
In the kitchen with Noony: teaching white people how to cook Lao food since…well, now.
I went home recently and asked Mom to demonstrate the proper way to fák papaya, without a vegetable peeler. It is not for the faint of heart.
- Spicy Thai Papaya Salad – aka “Som Tam” (instructables.com)
- Review: Lao Village Restaurant (sosydsays.com)
- “SOM TUM”-Thai (Inspired) Papaya Salad!!! (lessahhasuncion.wordpress.com)
- Authentic Spicy Thai Green Papaya Salad, Som Tam (gottopickapocketortwo.com)