Papaya Salad Variations & the Authenticity Myth

Regional variations on a Southeast Asian Classic

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By David Hammond

In San Antonio, Texas, for Culinaria, a city-wide and multi-day dining event, I had lunch at Tuk Tuk Taproom, a restaurant named after the traditional and onomatopoeic motor-bike cabs popular in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. 

David Gilbert, who used to sport the white toque and apron of a high-end chef at Sustenio in the Eilan hotel complex, a few miles outside the city, had a life-changing experience when he spontaneously split to go diving on Thailand's famous – and still largely unspoiled -- reefs. I spotted the Joseph Campbell admonition "Follow your bliss" at Gilbert's restaurant, and that's obviously what he did. He ended up extending his stay in Southeast Asia for months, and when he came back, he decided to forego fancy food and focus on the food of the street in his new, and much humbler restaurant, Tuk Tuk.

Gilbert prepared for me and other media guests (as well as a few civilians) three variations of a Southeast Asian classic: papaya salad.

While in Thailand, Gilbert became enamored of Southeast Asian street food, and his Tuk Tuk now specializes in serving the food that one might buy and consume while standing in the streets of Thailand, Vietnam or Burma.

At Tuk Tuk, Gilbert laid out for me and other media guests (as well as a few civilians) three versions of a Southeast Asian classic: papaya salad.

In Chicagoland, many of us may have tried papaya salad at restaurants serving Thai food, which is a somewhat more popular cuisine in this area than either Vietnamese or Burmese.  You can find papaya salad at many Thai restaurants, including Mama Thai in Oak Park and Bodhi Thai Restaurant in Berwyn.

Sampling the papaya salad from these three countries was fascinating, and the main ingredient that connects them all is the green papaya, sliced thin. At home, we use a mandolin to cut the papaya into straws; in the streets of Bangkok, for instance, the vendors hold the barely ripe fruit in one hand and deftly slice it with the other: a feat of manual dexterity you should not attempt unless you have good medical insurance and/or no need for both your hands).

So how are these papaya salads different?

* Thai (upper right in photo). A key step in the preparation of Thai salad is that the fine strips of papaya are vigorously beaten in a mortar and pestle. This beating – and I've seen it done on the streets of Bangkok: the vendors really wail on the strands – releases the juices and helps all flavors marry. Then tomatoes are added, along with a few bird's eye chilies, garlic, palm sugar, long green beans, dried shrimps and fish sauce, which gives this salad a delicious depth of funk and hits all the traditional Thai buttons of sweet, sour, salty, and hot.

* Vietnamese (bottom center in photo). This was the only papaya salad among the three to contain meat: dried beef. This was probably my favorite rendition, and the only one of the three to contain herbs. This Vietnamese version had whole basil leaves into the mix, as well as chili flakes, soy sauce and rice vinegar, which I thought gave it a lot of dimension and texture.

* Burmese (upper left in photo) was in many ways the simplest papaya salad, which is reflective of the current situation in Burma (or do you call it Myanmar?). Forgoing any fresh vegetables, this salad contains chili oil, which keeps better than fresh chilies and provides some extra calories, desirable in a country currently undergoing economic difficulties. There were also dry shrimp powder (again, keeps better than fresh), fish sauce, tamarind and peanuts. Most interestingly, this version of the papaya salad contains chick pea flour, for additional calories and bulk. This salad was comparatively 'creamy," which is definitely not a descriptor for the Thai or Vietnamese salads.

Are these all of these papaya salads "authentic" to their respective countries?

I think so, but I don't know.

At this lunch, I was sitting next to a Malaysian man who, when we had our first bite of Thai papaya salad, said, "This is all wrong. You never put beans into papaya salad." Well, maybe not in Malaysia, but I've always used Chinese long beans (also called snake beans) in papaya salad, following (as I usually do) David Thompson's magisterial Thai Food.

I've almost stopped using the word "authentic" when talking about food. The concept is just too slippery. Is an authentic food the type or preparation of that food that you first had? Or the food based on the first documented recipe of that food? Or the food or recipe sanctioned by some authority? Or is an authentic dish simply the kind your mom made for you when you were little?

I don't know...but I'm guessing when people talk about "authentic" food, one or more of those factors is coming into play.

"Authenticity" seems many times to be mythical, a belief or narrative that's held to be true in the absence of actual data. Sometimes, "authenticity" is just something we want to believe exists even if we can support the claim of authenticity with any substantive evidence.

So I try not to designate food as "authentic." It's a term that, to me, is almost meaningless. Even if it had meaning, the idea of authenticity, even for a specific dish, may vary, and it's possible there are as many variations on the papaya salad in Southeast Asia as there are variations on the hot dog in the United States.

Ultimately, of course, the relative authenticity of a dish has nothing to do with the tastiness of the dish. Authenticity is a historical or anthropological issue, and the degree to which a dish is authentic won't much affect whether or not you like the way it tastes.


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