As Charles Phan explains in his cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking, versions of green papaya salad abound across Southeast Asia. This ubiquity is not surprising given its presence on most Thai and Vietnamese restaurant menus throughout the States; however these often slapdash versions don't hold a candle to the hand-sliced, just tossed salad made at home.
Phan's version is relatively simple; crisp green papaya slivers mingle with pickled carrots, fried tofu, cucumbers, and celery. A dressing of potent fish sauce, vinegar, garlic, and chiles brings the vegetables together, and then the whole caboodle is topped with fried shallots and roasted peanuts. You will, of course, have find a good way to julienne a giant papaya, pickle carrots, fry both tofu and shallots, and mix it all together before dinner. It is no last-minute side dish, but you'll be happy to have put in the time.
Why I picked this recipe: When I think of Southeast Asian dishes, one of the first that comes to mind is papaya salad.
What worked: The time spent chopping, pickling, and frying the components of Phan's salad is well worth it once you taste the bright, tangy freshness.
What didn't: I didn't need to fry the tofu for the full 15 minutes; 10 was plenty of time to create a crisp, golden exterior. I would have also liked a little more acid in the fish sauce mixture; a table-side squirt of lime juice was welcome.
Suggested tweaks: Salads such as this one are ripe for personal tweaks: Don't like celery? Swap it out for more cucumber or carrots? Can't do tofu? Replace it with another crisp-chewy protein (like Phan's suggested beef jerky) or leave it out all together. Phan recommends slicing the papaya on the julienne setting on a mandolin for ease. However, it is certainly possible to julienne the papaya by hand if you don't have a mandolin. Just plan on extra prep time.