Green papaya, an immature papaya, is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine and is used in soups like Kaeng som and salads like the iconic Som Tam Thai. The crispy texture reminiscent of chayote squash and the mild sweetness of the plant are highly evaluated. Recently, Derek Lucci came to the Serious Eats test kitchen to prepare many Thai salad recipes, including classic green papaya salad. He provided a lot of great information on how to buy, store and prepare green papaya all day long. Here’s what you need to know:
How to buy green papaya
Green papayas are easy to find in Asian markets, especially those that specialize in Southeast Asian agricultural products. If you don’t live in an area with such market options, some online retailers ship fresh green papaya. Look for fruits with relatively smooth skin that are free of bruises and large scratches. When having a green papaya, it should feel hard and heavy due to its size, with no soft or fluffy spots. Grocery stores like Whole Foods often stock solid green-skinned papayas, but don’t be fooled. The aging process is much more advanced than the green papaya used in Som Tam Thai. Cut into one and you’ll find sweet orange flesh fruit. This is not what you need to make a green papaya salad.
How to store green papaya
Papaya is a climberic fruit. In other words, like peaches, bananas, avocados, etc., they continue to ripen after being picked. Since we want to keep the fruits immature, the green papaya should be refrigerated rather than left on the counter to slow down the ripening process as much as possible. Wrap the entire fruit tightly in wrap or foil and place it in a clearer drawer in the refrigerator.
Due to its large size, it is unlikely that one recipe will process the entire papaya, but it will last best if left untouched as it will soften faster when the core and seeds are exposed. So, instead of peeling the whole papaya all at once or halving the fruit as in the recipe, Derek always removes the whole fruit when preparing the green papaya and peels as much as needed during the work. I recommend you to cut it out. For example, you need half an onion. Once you have the amount you need, wrap the papaya in a cup of finely chopped papaya for somtam or a small wedge for kaeng som and put it back in the crisper. When stored in this way, green papaya lasts for about 2 weeks.
How to chop green papaya for somtam
The key to a great Som Tam Thai is the interaction between the bright and bracing dressing and the crisp strips of green papaya that absorb it. The fruit should be cut into sturdy enough pieces so that it does not become sticky as soon as it is combined with the rest of the mortar and pestle material. However, it should not be thick enough to be unpleasantly chewy or fibrous. There are several ways to make perfectly finely chopped papaya.
Knife Cut Green Papaya: Perfect Imperfections
The most classic way to prepare green papaya for Thai Papaya is to cut it into thin batons by hand using a sharp knife. Start by peeling half of the papaya vertically with a regular vegetable peeler. Hold the papaya skin side with your non-dominant hand (the skin has a better grip than if you peeled the whole fruit) and turn the exposed meat side toward you.
Use a sharp knife, preferably a thin blade such as a Chinese-style knife or Japanese nakiri knife, to make a series of vertical cuts, separating the papaya vertically by 1/16 to 1/8 inch. Make a 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep notch in the fruit. One of the main attractions of hand-cut green papaya is the different textures provided by shreds of different thicknesses, so don’t try to create perfect, evenly spaced cuts.
Once the entire surface of the exposed papaya is covered with a vertical notch, rotate the knife 90 degrees so that the blade is parallel to the surface of the fruit, slice it vertically away from you across the papaya, and slice the resulting shred. Release. Repeat this process until you have the amount of shredded papaya you need for your salad. When you reach the core and seed, stop cutting that part of the papaya. At that point, peel off the remaining fruit and move on to the next uncut section.
This method may seem a bit nervous to someone who is completely new to knife skills, but it is very safe if done properly. Unlike the famous dangerous avocado, the green papaya is so big that it’s easy to keep it safe. The meat is not smooth, so the knife blade is less likely to slip during cutting. And you’re making a light incision, not trying to push a nasty hole into the heel of the blade. With a little practice, you can shred with the best.
Kiwi Peeler Shred Papaya: Fast and Absolutely Sure
If you are wary of the knife-cut approach and prefer a streamlined kitchen preparation, you can use a special green papaya peeler that produces perfectly uniform pieces of papaya with minimal effort. No knife skills required. Papaya peelers are very similar to the julienne peelers that were once given as stocking stuffing. I think this is behind the kitchen drawer, but I’ve never seen it again so I don’t know. It has a classic y-peeler profile and its blade has raised teeth. These teeth are cut to the optimum width for shredding green papaya, unlike Western julienne peelers, which produce strands that are too fine for somtam. Thai brand Kiwi manufactures gold standard affordable papaya shredders, just as Kuhn Rikon is the recourse of y-peelers.
Using a kiwi peeler is as easy as it gets. As with the knife-cutting method, start by peeling the papaya with a standard vegetable peeler. Hold the papaya with your non-dominant hand and move the peeler vertically along the papaya meat to apply even pressure to create a complete long strand. Repeat this process until you reach the required amount. This method is reliable, fast, and consistent. It’s no wonder restaurants like kiwi peelers.
Mandolin sliced papaya: size matters
If you’re enjoying the adrenaline rush of slicing vegetables with a slicer, then I won’t talk to you. However, the large size of green papaya makes it difficult to slice with a standard width mandolin. Even Super Benriner may not be able to accommodate the width of large green papayas. This will require you to cut the fruit in half. This is not ideal for storage, as mentioned above. If you want to use a slicer, slice the peeled part of the papaya vertically into a plank and cut it with a knife into batons 1/16 to 1/8 inch wide and 5 inches long. Alternatively, you can use the mandolin tooth attachment to chop the papaya in one shot.
Knife Cut and Peeler Shred: Comparison of Results
Does cutting papaya by hand give better results than chopping it with a peeler? Yes and no. Either way, you’ll get the best shredded green papaya to make somtam. Hand-cut papayas boast a wider variety of textures, including larger, crisper parts and thinner, more adaptable parts. Derek prefers this approach and points out that hand-cut papayas hold crunches much better than shredded with a peeler.
As you can see in the picture above, the peeler-cut green papaya is more winding and flexible. In other words, it is softer and faster when you put it on. This is not necessarily a big issue. Try to dress up the papaya at the last moment possible before serving so that the papaya does not sit too long. Also, if the pressure is not applied perfectly evenly, the kiwi peeler tends to produce a sheet of semi-shredded papaya that is not completely separated into strands. This is a hand, like long rippling potato chips. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s a little annoying. When I tasted the versions of Som Tam Thai made by each method side by side in the Serious Eats test kitchen, I really liked the chewy and chewy texture of the knife-cut papaya. However, the convenience of peelers is undisputed.