Green papaya, which is just unripe papaya, is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines, where it's used in soups like gaeng som, or salads like the iconic som tam Thai. It's prized for its crisp texture and mild vegetal sweetness, which is reminiscent of chayote squash. Recently, Derek Lucci came to the Serious Eats test kitchen to prepare a number of Thai salad recipes, including the classic green papaya salad. Throughout the day, he provided a lot of great information on how to shop for, store, and prepare green papaya. Here's what you need to know.
How to Shop for Green Papaya
Green papaya can be easily found at Asian markets, particularly markets that specialize in Southeast Asian produce. If you don't live in an area with these sorts of market options, there are online retailers that ship fresh green papaya as well. Look for fruit with relatively smooth skin without bruises or large blemishes. When you hold a green papaya, it should feel firm and heavy for its size, without any soft or squishy spots. Grocery stores like Whole Foods do often stock firm, green-skinned papayas, but don’t be fooled—they are much further along in the ripening process than the green papaya used in som tam Thai. Cut into one and you’ll find sweet, orange-fleshed fruit, which is not what you want for making green papaya salad.
How to Store Green Papaya
Papayas are climacteric fruit, which means that they continue to ripen after being picked, just like peaches, bananas, and avocados, among others. Seeing as we want to keep the fruit unripe, green papaya should be refrigerated rather than left out on the counter, in order to slow down the ripening process as much as possible. Wrap whole fruit tightly in plastic wrap or foil and keep them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
Because of their large size, you most likely won’t go through a whole papaya for any single recipe, but they hold up best when kept intact, as they soften at a faster rate once the core and seeds are exposed. For that reason, Derek recommends working off of the whole fruit whenever preparing green papaya, peeling and cutting away just the amount you need as you work, rather than peeling the entire papaya at once, or halving the fruit as you would for a recipe that calls for half an onion, for example. Once you’ve got the amount you need, whether it’s a couple of cups of shredded papaya for som tam or small wedges for gaeng som, simply wrap the papaya back up, and pop it back in the crisper. Stored this way, green papaya will last for approximately two weeks.
How to Shred Green Papaya for Som Tam
The key to a great som tam Thai is the interplay between the bright, bracing dressing and the crisp strips of green papaya that soak it up. The fruit needs to be cut into pieces that are sturdy enough that they won’t become soggy as soon as they are combined with the rest of the ingredients in the mortar and pestle. However, the pieces shouldn't be so thick that they're unpleasantly chewy and fibrous. There are a few different ways to produce perfectly shredded papaya:
Knife-Cut Green Papaya: Perfect Imperfection
The most classic way to prepare green papaya for som tam is to use a sharp knife and cut it into thin batons by hand. Start by peeling half of the papaya lengthwise with a regular vegetable peeler. Hold the skin-side of the papaya in your non-dominant hand (the skin will give you a better grip than if you peeled the whole fruit), with the exposed flesh side facing you.
Using a sharp knife, preferably one with a thin blade such as a Chinese-style cleaver or Japanese nakiri, make a series of vertical incisions running lengthwise on the papaya, spaced somewhere between 1/16 and 1/8 of an inch apart, and making 1/8- to 1/4-inch-deep incisions in the fruit. Don’t try to make perfect, evenly spaced cuts, as one of the main appeals of hand-cut green papaya is the variety of texture provided by shreds of different thicknesses.
Once the entire surface of the exposed papaya is covered with vertical cuts, turn the knife 90 degrees so that the blade is parallel with the surface of the fruit, and slice lengthwise across the papaya, away from you, to release the shreds you have created. Keep repeating this process until you obtain the amount of shredded papaya needed for your salad. Just make sure to stop making cuts on that portion of the papaya once you get to the core and seeds. At that point, peel the rest of the fruit, and move on to the next uncut section.
While this method may seem a little nerve-racking for anyone who doesn’t feel completely comfortable with their knife skills, it’s quite safe when done properly. Unlike famously treacherous avocados, green papayas are very large, so they’re easy to hold safely; the flesh isn't slick, so a knife edge is less likely to slip during cutting; and you’re making light incisions, not trying to impale a pesky pit on the heel of a blade. With a little practice, you can shred with the best of them.
Kiwi Peeler Shredded Papaya: Fast and Foolproof
If you are wary of the knife-cut approach and prefer streamlined kitchen prep, you can use a specialized green papaya peeler that produces perfectly even shreds of papaya with minimal effort—no knife skills required. A papaya peeler looks a lot like the julienne peeler that I was once given as a stocking stuffer, which I imagine lives in the back of a kitchen drawer but I can't be sure, since I've never seen it again. It has a classic y-peeler profile, and its blade has ridged teeth. Those teeth are cut to the perfect width for green papaya shreds, unlike Western julienne peelers, which produce strands that are too thin for som tam. The Thai brand Kiwi makes the gold standard affordable papaya shredder, just as Kuhn Rikon is the go-to for y-peelers.
Using the Kiwi peeler couldn’t be easier. Start by peeling the papaya with a standard vegetable peeler, just as with the knife-cut method. Hold the papaya in your non-dominant hand, and simply run the peeler lengthwise down the flesh of the papaya, applying even pressure to produce perfect long strands. Repeat this process until you have the amount you need. This method is as foolproof as it gets, it’s fast, and it gives consistent results. It’s no wonder that restaurants favor the Kiwi peeler.
Mandoline Sliced Papaya: Size Matters
If you enjoy the adrenaline rush of slicing vegetables on a mandoline, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. However, the large size of green papayas makes them difficult to slice on a standard-width mandoline. Even a Super Benriner might not be able to accommodate the width of a large green papaya, which would force you to cut the fruit in half, which, as discussed before, is not ideal for storage. If you do want to use a mandoline, you can slice the peeled portion of papaya lengthwise into planks and then cut them with a knife into batons that are between 1/16 and 1/8 of an inch wide and 5 inches long. Or you can use the teeth attachment on the mandoline to shred the papaya in one shot.
Knife-Cut vs. Peeler-Shredded: Comparing the Results
Does cutting papaya by hand yield better results than shredding it with a peeler? Yes and no. Both methods will give you perfectly good shredded green papaya for making som tam. Hand-cut papaya boasts a greater variety of textures, with some larger, crispier pieces, and some thinner, more malleable ones. Derek prefers this approach, and he points out that hand-cut papaya holds onto its crunch much better than peeler-shredded.
As you can see in the photo above, peeler-cut green papaya is more bendy and flexible, which means it’s also softer and turns soggy more quickly when dressed. This isn’t necessarily a big problem—just make sure to dress the papaya at the last possible moment before serving so that it doesn’t sit for too long. Also if you don’t apply perfectly even pressure, the Kiwi peeler has the tendency to produce sheets of semi-shredded papaya that aren’t completely separated into strands, kind of like a long ruffled potato chip that you then need to pull apart by hand. Not the end of the world, but a slight annoyance. When I tasted side-by-side versions of som tam Thai made with each method in the Serious Eats test kitchen, I vastly preferred the crunch and chew of the knife-cut papaya. However, it’s hard to argue with the convenience of the peeler.