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Kasma Makes Green Papaya Salad (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Kasma Pounds Som Tam

Kasma Makes Green Papaya Salad

Kasma pounds Green Papaya Salad

Although Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) (or Som Tam) is an Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) dish, it’s available all over Thailand, especially as street food or in markets (usually made by a transplanted Isaan vendor).

Here Kasma is showing the students in her weekend intermediate cooking class (class #4) how to make green papaya salad.

See also:

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Green Papaya

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Green, Unripe Papaya Makes Spicy Salad

In Thailand, green papayas are probably eaten more often than ripe papayas.

On the island of Samui in the Gulf of Thailand is a lovely family-run beach resort. Idyllic seaside bungalows are surrounded by some of the most beautiful papaya trees I have ever seen.

Green Papaya

A green papaya

The first time I stayed there, I was so charmed by the unusual stature of these trees with their majestic, deeply cut foliage. Clinging to the trunk of each tree must be at least a dozen large, emerald green fruits, soon to ripen in the tropical heat. I remarked to the owner that he must never need to worry about having enough sweet, luscious papayas to satisfy the steady stream of tourists who come and stay at his resort.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Peeled Green Papaya

Peeled green papaya

He chuckled and replied, “I have never seen a single fruit ripen on any of my trees. The papayas I serve my guests I have to order from the mainland. Papayas on this island never have the chance to ripen!”

I knew exactly what he meant. Papayas are more often than not picked by locals while still green to be made into a spicy salad, a favorite food among Thai, as well as Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese people. I wouldn’t be surprised if  more papayas are consumed green and crisp in Southeast Asia than golden orange and soft. A tribute has even been made to this fruit in its unripened form in the film “Scent of Green Papaya,” with a prominent scene showing green papaya being chopped and made into salad.

Shredded Green Papaya

Shredded green papaya

Green papaya has a very mild, almost bland, taste, but it is the medium through which robust flavor ingredients take body and form. It picks up the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors, giving them a unique crisp and chewy texture unlike that of any other vegetable. When made into salad, you wouldn’t know that it was mild and timid; you remember it only as bold and spicy.

Unripe papayas are readily available in various sizes and shapes during the summer at many Asian markets. Select one that is very firm with shiny green peel suggesting that it is as freshly picked as possible. Even green fruits will eventually ripen and turn soft if allowed to sit around for some time.

Green Papaya Salad Ingredients

Fixings for Green Papaya Salad

There are many ways to make green papaya salads, with varying degrees of hotness, sourness and sweetness. The hottest salads are probably made in northeastern Thailand and Laos where they are eaten with barbecued chicken and sticky rice as a staple food of the populace. There, the salads are made by bruising julienned green papaya with garlic and very hot bird peppers in a large clay mortar with a wooden pestle, then seasoning with lime juice, fish sauce and other flavorings.

Give the green papaya salad recipe a try.

See our website for more Thai recipes and more Thai ingredients.

Green Papaya Salad Set-up

Green Papaya Salad Set-up

This recipe is also available on our website as: Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam).

Green Papaya Salad Recipe (Som Tam)


  • 6-8 large cloves garlic, cut each into 3-4 pieces
  • 8-15 Thai chillies (prik kee noo), to desired hotness – each cut crosswise into 3-4 segments with seeds
  • 1 cup long beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch segments
  • 2 tsp. small dried shrimp
  • 1 small whole salted crab (bpoo kem), cut into 6 pieces – optional
  • 1 Tbs. palm sugar, or to taste
  • Juice of 2-3 limes, to desired sourness
  • 1 medium (about 2 lb. size) very firm, unripe green papaya, peeled and julienned into long strips to yield about 4 cups
  • 2-3 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 6-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 Tbs. chopped unsalted roasted peanuts

If you have an average-size Laos-style baked clay mortar with wooden pestle, you may need to make the salad in two separate batches. With an extra-large carved palm wood mortar and pestle, the salad can be made in a single batch as follows.

Pound the garlic and Thai chillies together until they are pasty. Add the dried shrimp and pound to crack. Follow with the salted crab (if using) and long beans and pound well to bruise.

Add the palm sugar, juice of two of the limes, and fish sauce and stir well. Add the julienned green papaya. Toss well with the seasonings. Then, pounding with one hand and stirring with the other, bruise the green papaya until it picks up all the flavorings and seasonings. Taste and adjust as needed with more fish sauce, lime juice or palm sugar to the desired flavor combination. Ideally, for a Thai, the salad should be very hot and sour with only a light sweetness at the back of the tongue.

Add the tomato pieces at the end, stir and bruise lightly to blend in with the rest of the salad. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with peanuts.

Serves 6 with a side plate of raw vegetables, as desired, in a multi-course family-style meal.

Green Papaya Salad

Green Papaya Salad

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2010.

Adapting the Wok to your Stove

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Maintaining a high degree of heat is essential for stir-frying, so knowing how to adapt the wok to your stovetop is a key to success in its usage. For most home-cooks preparing meals for two to four people, most stovetops provide sufficient heat for successful wok cooking.

Wok Cooking

Student at Kasma's Kitchen

Each stovetop differs. On some gas stoves, the wok balances well enough on the grate without the need to use any special stand. Though a bit wobbly, a wok with good weight and depth has a center of gravity that makes it difficult to tip over unless one is really careless. For greater stability when stir-frying on such stovetops, simply hold on to a wok handle with one hand while tossing with the other.

On other gas stoves, the grate may be removed and a wok ring fitted down onto the indentation around the burner to bring the wok as closely as possible to the heat source. (Some of my students find that the grate on their stove when turned upside down balances their wok perfectly; but this works only on certain stoves.) From my years of teaching, I have found that many people use their wok rings inefficiently. The wok is better balanced and brought closer to the flames if the wider end of the ring is placed facing up. In any event, avoid using the wok ring on top of the grate as this lifts the wok too far above the heat source and will not give good results to your stir-fry.

Wok Ring

Wok ring for electric stove

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Wok rings come in different sizes and depths, so find one that fits the burner you plan to use for wok cooking and that is deep enough for your wok. Do not settle for the ring that comes with your wok set; if it does not fit your stove, search Asian markets for one that will. Wok rings also come either with wide open sides or closed sides with a series of small holes around the ring. The latter type is well-suited to the electric stove as it helps to concentrate heat and direct it upward (see right). Use a ring wide enough on its narrower end to completely surround the electric coil to assure that as much heat as possible is directed toward the wider end on which the wok sits. Heavy wire rings with open sides work best for powerful gas burners (hotter than 10,000 b.t.u.), allowing flames to leap up the sides of the wok and good air circulation to nurture the flames (see below left).

Wok Rings

One type of wok-ring

Choose a wok that is deep and well-rounded, made of heavy gauge carbon or spun steel for maintaining good heat and for easy seasoning (see next section). Flat-bottom woks are now commonly available and though they provide good balance on flat stovetops, I still prefer the age-old round bottoms. The wide, shovel-shaped wok spatula, which makes tossing such a breeze, is made to fit the rounded contours of the wok. I find it much easier to use with the round-bottom wok. Besides tossing, following a stir-fry, the spatula easily dishes out all the pieces of food, including small bits of garlic and drops of sauce, from the wok’s surface, enabling me to stir-fry two or more batches of food without having to clean in-between batches. This saves precious time in washing, drying and reheating the wok when cooking dishes with compatible flavors.

Wok on Stovetop

Wok on upside down burner

With a flat-bottom wok, the introduction of a slight angle where its bottom flattens out makes tossing with the round-edged wok spatula a bit more challenging and less fun, and often, food is less evenly cooked. Particles of food caught around this edge sometimes end up overcooking or burning, making cleanup more of a chore and increasing the likelihood of scrubbing off some of the precious, hard-earned patina. This slight angle also increases the likelihood of scratching the area above it while turning the pieces of food with the wok spatula. Some people solve this problem by replacing the wok spatula with a wooden spoon with which to stir-fry, but tossing with a spoon is much less efficient than with the wide wok spatula, defeating part of the purpose of cooking with a wok.

Although the flat-bottom wok is specially designed for better balance on the flat coils of the electric stove, it can be a challenge to stir-fry food evenly on it as its flat bottom, sitting directly on the coil, heats up much hotter than the rounded sides above it. Food can easily burn if it is not tossed quickly enough and tossing is made more difficult for reasons already mentioned.

Two woks on stove

Two 16-inch woks on one stove

So even on an electric stove, I advise my students to use a wok ring to lift the wok just a little bit above the coil. The burners of most electric stoves do put out plenty of heat; even if the wok is slightly lifted from the coils, enough heat will be conducted upward with the proper wok ring for a successful stir-fry. If a wok ring is to be used anyway, then it makes sense to just stay with the better-designed round-bottom wok.

Whether round-bottom or flat-bottom, use whatever wok you feel most comfortable with in your kitchen, and if you have been making perfect stir-fries on a flat skillet, then continue doing what you have been doing.

Read Kasma’s other articles on the Wok:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2010.

Thai Curries — Kaeng (or Gkaeng or Gaeng)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, March 7th, 2010

To most Americans across the country, the word “curry” brings to mind the golden yellow spice mixture found in small jars or tins on supermarket shelves. But for those with more sophisticated palates in world cuisines, the word conjures up an array of images of rich saucy dishes, making their mouth salivate with the memory of such invigorating tastes and tingling scents ranging from the Indian vindaloo to Thai red and green curries.

Curry vendor in Krabi

Curry vendor in Krabi

Although the origin of the word could be traced back a few thousand years to a particular spiced food in India, curry has since come to be associated with any kind of dish in which meats, fish or vegetables are stewed in a spicy sauce made with a mixture of dry spices or fresh herbs. Most of them are rich foods, having cream, yoghurt or coconut milk as a base, but there are also very light, though searingly spicy, broth-based curries, especially in the heartland of Southeast Asia. Because of the tremendous varieties of curries that exist today throughout world, I prefer to define curry broadly as a way of cooking rather than any spice mixture or group of finished dishes.

Goat Curry in Kasma's Class

Goat Curry in Kasma's Class

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Curry-making, as a way of cooking, was introduced into Southeast Asia by Indian immigrants over the past two to three thousand years, through trade, wars and the spread of religion. While dry aromatic spices from seeds, dried roots and bark figure prominently in Indian curries, they are used sparingly in many Southeast Asian curries. Instead, fresh herbs and roots, stems and leaves, bulbs and vegetables, as well as fish products, constitute the essential ingredients, making Thai, Laotian and Cambodian curries refreshingly herbal, robustly pungent, lusciously tangy and distinctively Southeast Asian.

In Thai cuisine alone, there are dozens of different kinds when the several distinct regions of the country with their diverse mix of ethnic peoples are taken into consideration. Each is a unique combination of herbs, spices and preparation techniques that enhance the tastes and textures of particular foods. Some curry pastes are fairly simple while most are complex symphonies of tantalizing flavors. Most have at their core lemon grass, galanga, kaffir lime peel, garlic, shallots and fermented shrimp paste. To them are added innumerable other herbs, roots, seeds and spices in varying proportions to create almost endless combinations. Often the specific herbs that go into certain curries reflect nature’s diversity and the earth’s bounty.

Preparing fresh ingredients

Preparing fresh ingredients

The two most common curries are red curry (gkaeng ped) and green curry (gkaeng kiow wahn)), and because of their fresh herbal flavors, they go quite well with seafood. Red curry paste is used not only in making the saucy curry known in many American Thai restaurants, but also in dried wok-tossed curries called pad ped (literally “spicy stir-fry”) and steamed or grilled custardlike curries called haw moek. Both are very popular in Thailand and exceptional ways to cook seafood. While haw moek is exquisitely rich with coconut cream and eggs, pad ped is light and intensely spicy – the seafood or meats tossed in a hot wok with a little oil, the curry paste, a profusion of fresh aromatics and little or no coconut cream.

Pounding green curry paste

Pounding green curry paste

Red curry paste is red from red chillies, usually in dried form or a mixture of fresh and dried, giving the curries made with it a fiery red color. Green curry, on the other hand, has a greenish tint from the fresh green chillies and leaves it contains. Green curry paste is a relatively simple paste, made mainly of fresh herbs, whereas red curry paste comes in a number of permutations ranging from simple to complex.

Pre-packaged green and red curry pastes come in tin cans, plastic pouches, plastic containers and glass jars in a number of different sizes and brands with varying qualities. I find them to be fresher-tasting and to have a greater depth of flavor than pastes that come in tin cans, mainly because the process of canning destroys some of the more subtle flavors. My preferred brand is Mae Ploy with a good saltiness and nice hot bite. (See Kasma’s favorite Thai brands.) Mae Ploy curries are readily available in Southeast Asian markets. Gourmet grocery stores that carry a wide selection of international foods may sell small jars of specially bottled and labeled pastes suited to milder western palates.

Red curry frying in coconut milk

Red curry frying in coconut milk

Curry pastes keep indefinitely in the refrigerator; but once opened, they gradually lose freshness of flavor. Keep the containers well-sealed and always use a clean spoon to dish out the amount you need.

However, none of the pre-packaged pastes compare with the fresh flavors of home-made curry pastes. Some of these made-from-scratch pastes are fairly easy to make and produce wonderfully delicious curries. Curry pastes can be made a day or two ahead of time, allowing the flavors to mingle, marry and peak, and although they keep for weeks in the refrigerator (the salt, chillies and garlic preserve them naturally), use them fairly soon before the flavors dissipate, losing the advantage of freshness that makes them superior to store-bought pastes.

Jungle curry

Jungle Curry

Most Thai curries are made with coconut milk, but there are a number of very spicy, souplike dishes without coconut milk which we also call curries. Among them are jungle curry (gkaeng bpah) and sour curry (gkaeng som). Although brothy like soup, they are served more like curries – spooned over and eaten together with plain rice.

Crushing the fibers of herbs releases the full range of essential oils they contain and give chilli sauces and curry pastes a greater breadth and depth of flavor than just chopping them in a food processor can achieve. This is especially critical when working with fibrous aromatics and roots, such as lemon grass, galanga and kaffir lime peel; they appear dry when chopped, but reduce to moist paste when pounded. Also, when these herbs are pounded together, their flavors meld into one, yielding an immensely aromatic paste in which the parts are inseparable from the whole. (See Kasma’s article on Making a Curry Paste from Scratch.)

Haw Moek Curry

Haw Moek Curry at Aw Taw Kaw Market

For accomplishing the task of crushing herbs, a mortar and pestle set is essential. In Thailand, there are several different kinds suited for particular purposes. For making curry pastes, a heavy stone mortar and pestle, carved out of granite, is the most efficient – able to reduce fibrous herbs and hard seeds down in no time. The pestle and the inside surface of the mortar are polished smooth and are not rough, coarse or porous like the kind used in Mexican cooking. Very dense and heavy, they do not chip and last for years even when subjected to vigorous pounding daily.

Look for this dark-grey stone mortar and pestle set in a Thai or Southeast Asian market. It is available in small, medium and large sizes and ranges from about sixteen to twenty-five dollars. Buy the largest size since you can use it for big as well as small jobs. It also enables you to pound more vigorously without worrying about bits and pieces of herbs spilling all over your work area.

(See Kasma’s Blog entry: The Mortar and Pestle.)

Here are four curry recipes, one “from scratch” and three using pre-made pastes:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March 2010.


Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Peppercorns Spiced Up Asian Foods Before Chiles

Fresh green peppercorns

Fresh green peppercorns

Although we mostly associate chile peppers with Thai food, it was Peppercorns that provide heat for many centuries.

The fiery hot foods of India, western China and Southeast Asia had quite a different character prior to the sixteenth century. Those chile peppers, which today are so inseparable from many of Asia’s cuisines, did not actually arrive until the adventuring Portugese first sailed into the fabled ports of the Far East.

Before then, the main source of the spicy hot flavor came from peppercorns, the berries of a tropical vine indigenous to the region. Indeed, it was peppercorns that led to Columbus’s discovery of America and, along with it, the discovery of chiles, natives of the New World. Black pepper was highly prized in Europe in the Middle Ages and Columbus convinced the Spanish Court that he could find a shorter route to India so that the demands for the spice could be more quickly satisfied.

Greet peppercorns in brine

Green peppercorns in brine

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Instead of India, his voyage west was intercepted by the unexpected land mass later named the American continent. Instead of black pepper, he found chiles (that’s why chiles became known as chile “peppers” and native peoples of the new land were called “Indians.”) He brought chile peppers back to Europe but they did not catch on like black pepper. Later, the Portugese followed after Columbus’s footsteps to America, found chiles to be very effective in preventing scurvy and carried them in their explorations around the world.

In Asia, we use pepper in all its stages of development. Sprigs of very aromatic, young green berries appear in stir-fried dishes, curries, soups and dipping sauces. As pepper berries mature, they change from light green to dark green and then begin to turn red. Picked before fully matured, the peppercorns are dried, the outer peel turning black and shriveled, and this is the form most popular in the west. Fully ripened red berries are allowed to ferment briefly in a warm place, then their peel is rubbed off, revealing irregularly white seeds.

White peppercorns

White peppercorns

Sometimes, white peppercorns are bleached with lime to make them very white, though this process often removes some of the flavor but yields a ground powder preferred by the French for white sauces. In China and many Southeast Asian cultures, unbleached white pepper is preferred and more prevalently used than black pepper, adding punch to all sorts of dishes, from soups and appetizers to meat and seafood dishes.

Pepper and garlic make great companions. In Southeast Asia, we frequently add cilantro root to make a wonderful trio of flavors. They are ground up or chopped and pounded together with a mortar and pestle to a paste, which is then seasoned with fish sauce or soy sauce and a pinch of sugar, rubbed on meats or seafoods and then grilled over hot charcoals, or stir-fried.

Explore further:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, February 2010.

Whole Fish Dishes

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Whole Fish Dishes Usher in Abundance in the New Year

Most cultures in the Orient believe food to provide much more than physical sustenance. It also nourishes the soul and spirit and gives meaning to people’s lives.

Moon fish for sale

Moon fish for sale

One highly regarded food is fish, a major source of protein and nutrition affordable by people in all stations of life. Because they are plentiful in the surrounding seas and in inland lakes, rivers, ponds and canals, fish are auspicious symbols of abundance, wealth and prosperity Because they reproduce freely, swim about gracefully without apparent boundaries and seem content with their environments, they are basic symbols of regeneration, freedom, pleasure and harmony.

Two snapper on a plate

Two snapper on a plate

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

In many Asian countries, fish is served at almost every meal, but although it is eaten so frequently, people are never tired of it. This is because there are so many different varieties, each with its unique qualities and tastes, and countless ways to prepare them, employing a wide range of herbs, condiments and flavor ingredients. Fish is also light, delicate in taste and easy to digest, seldom leaving one feeling heavy and uncomfortable as when too much animal meat is consumed.

Frying a whole fish in a wok

Frying a whole fish in a wok

Asians prefer serving fish whole for a number of reasons. Not only does buying a fish whole allow us the best means of judging its freshness, cooking a fish on the bone and with skin still attached yields a more moist and much sweeter and tastier result. The smaller, younger fish we prefer means the flesh is tender and succulent and has less of a tendency of drying out it cooking. A whole fish also gives us delicious tidbits around the head, tail and fins.

Just as important is the meaning that a whole fish conveys – wholeness, unity and prosperity. For this reason and other symbolic meaning mentioned above, whole fish are customarily served on special occasions, such as birthdays, weddings and on the New Year. In my family, a whole fish is served on New Year’s eve – only part of it is eaten with the rest saved for the following day, thereby carrying prosperity from one year to the next.

Preparing the steamed fish dish

Preparing the steamed fish dish

If you’d like to try your hand at a whole fish recipe, check out my recipe for:

Although the recipe suggests some kinds of fish, they can be substituted with other kinds of fish that are fresh and in season. If you have trouble looking a fish in the eye, try the recipe with fish steaks, but of course they will be lacking in the abundance of flavors and meanings, especially for the new year.

Fish, ready to be steamed

Fish, ready to be steamed

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2009.