It doesn’t taste as wonderful at home as when you have it in the Caribbean, but a green papaya salad is still a gorgeous dish.
My green papaya backstory
So yes, it was on Saint Lucia, in the benevolent sunshine, by the side of turquoise waters and with my bare feet burrowed in the warm sand that I first had the salad.
A beach shack restaurant called Callaloo, a lunchtime frozen margarita and a little blush on my nose from the first morning of unaccustomed March sun, and a bowl of pale green shreddings topped with a skewer of shrimp. And that, my dear friends, was paradise.
Papaya was not alien to me but I knew it as mushy yellow fruit of a nothing-special flavour. I had it like that only at breakfast of that morning. But I’d not had green papaya before, which as it turns out is the same fruit, only picked when unripe.
You learn something every day! I can’t think of another fruit that would be better or as good, or good in a different way when not very ripe. It is usually the bane of supermarket produce: picked too early so it survives the transport, it is hard and flavourless, be it strawberries or tomatoes.
And here we have that pear-shaped import that is anything but pear-shaped as far as its taste is concerned.
Green or orange papaya – what’s the difference?
Orange flesh of fully ripe papaya is nice, but as said before, not compelling. Green papaya on the other hand is a revelation: perhaps it does not have a stunning flavour either (it would be weird otherwise), but it’s such a delightful canvas for a salad, I can hardly think of another fruit or vegetable that would be as good.
It has a crunch, it has juiciness, and it soaks up dressing like a thirsty sponge. Plus, it has some nutritional benefits that diminish as the fruit ripens: high potassium content, vitamin A and the protein-digesting enzymes that make it a natural digestif that aids the stomach to grapple with a meat feast.
Papaya is indigenous to South and Central America but is now grown in other tropical countries as well, including India and Indonesia. So there’s nothing local or seasonal about it, but considering the above, all the better for being picked green and transported by sea at a low carbon impact.
It is expensive, but a smallish fruit goes a long way in my recipe below.
Papaya salad is common at both ends of the tropical world. In the Caribbean it is mixed with chayote, another green pear-like fruit, and dressed with lime juice, olive oil and perhaps a pinch of cinnamon.
I like a fusion so I add some Thai influence in a tablespoon of fish sauce and rice vinegar. And to bulk it out, I mix papaya with apple and carrot, the European way.
Shred, dice or grate it?
I recommend julienne cut papaya for this salad, which means cutting it into long thin strips.
A knife skills maestro will do it by hand but I bet a lot of you have an ordinary vegetable peeler with a serrated edge on the other side. That precisely is a julienne tool and it’s fairly easy to scrape strips off a fruit or vegetable that disperse into perfect, long matchsticks.
Food processors will also have a julienne attachment, as will most mandolins – it’s that deadly looking spiky shank that inserts between the blade and the base.
But there is nothing wrong with dicing the fruit if you prefer a chunkier salad.
However, I wouldn’t advise grating – a grater will pulp papaya too much and you risk losing the crunch, which is the key to this salad.
Thai som tam salad, which my dressing borrows from, mixes papaya with dried shrimp, peanuts and sometimes tomatoes.
You can swap carrots and apple for shredded cucumber, for a maximum greenness.
And though I have not tried it myself, melon also sounds like a good match for papaya.
How to serve papaya salad?
Do it the Thai way, with cooked sticky rice. Or like in St Lucia, topping it with a protein skewer in the form of prawns, fish or chicken.
You can also serve it as a side to roast meat, chicken or beef, or with charcuterie. After all, meat is what it is supposed to help digest.
More salad recipes
Kohlrabi is seriously underrated. Hardly known in the UK, it actually makes a wonderful slaw: crunchy, fresh tasting, flavoursome and rich in nutrients.
Carrots really don’t have to be boring or bland. This zingy carrot salad is the proof, seasoned with lime, chillies and tarragon, it makes the carrots sing.
Herby beetroot salad with raw, thinly sliced chioggia beetroot, lots of fresh herbs and shaved sharp hard cheese. To say it’s healthy is an understatement.