Thai Green Papaya Salad with Salted Field Crab (Som Tum Pla Ra)
This is a funky, briny twist on a classic dish from Southeast Asia you'll want to seek out a few special ingredients to make.
For the Tamarind Water:
- 3 ½ ounces tamarind pulp with the seeds; not tamarind puree
For the Salad:
- 1 garlic clove sliced
- 1 tablespoon unsalted roasted peanuts
- 4 bird’s eye chiles
- 4 snake yard-long beans, cut into 3 cm lengths
- 2 salted rice field crabs
- 1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar jaggery
- 5 cherry tomatoes cut in half
- 1 teaspoon acacia seeds
- 7 ounces green papaya shredded
- 2 tablespoons Tamarind Water
- ½ tablespoon mam nem fermented anchovy sauce
- juice of ½ lime
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- lime wedges to serve
Make the Tamarind Water:
While you can buy puréed tamarind, ready to go, the flavor is not that great. Better by far is to make your own and it’s not hard – a block of tamarind pulp is easy to find in Asian grocers and will keep for ages in the refrigerator. Whenever you need some tamarind water just break off a piece of tamarind, soak it briefly in boiling water, work it into a paste and sieve it to get rid of seeds and tough fibers.
Soak the tamarind pulp in 13 fl oz boiling water. Break it up a little with a whisk, then leave until cool enough to handle. Using your hands, break the mixture up into a rough paste. Pass the mixture through a sieve; you should get about 1½ cups tamarind water.
Make the Salad:
Using a large mortar and pestle, pound the garlic to a paste. Add the peanuts and chillies and pound until mixed with the garlic.
Now add the snake beans and salted crab, gently pounding while adding the palm sugar, tomatoes, acacia seeds and papaya. Continue gently pounding and mixing with a spoon at the same time.
Next add the tamarind water, mam nem, lime juice and fish sauce. Lightly pound and mix for a further minute, for all the flavors to infuse.
Transfer to a bowl and serve straight away with the lime wedges.
ACACIA SEEDS: Acacia has a long history of use by Indigenous Australian people. It is also widely eaten throughout South-East Asia. The seeds are extremely nutritious and contain several times the protein of wheat. The seeds can be eaten raw, roasted or steamed and eaten as a snack or added to salads.
SALTED RICE FIELD CRABS: Salted rice field crabs are small crabs from rice paddy fields, which have been fermented whole in salt water. In Thailand, cooks use the salty preserving brine as a seasoning in their cooking, so nothing is wasted. The rice field crab adds a great flavor and distinctive aroma when pounded up in Thai tom sum salad.
MAM NEM: A sauce made from fermented salted anchovies, widely used as a condiment in Vietnamese cooking. It has a more pungent aroma and flavor than regular fish sauce. It is sold in bottles in Asian food stores.
Recipes and excerpts used with permission from Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia, by Luke Nguyen. Photography by Alan Benson.