Spicy Cabbage Salad With Fish Sauce Dressing Recipe

Inspired by the flavors of som tum, this salad hits all the same notes without sending you on a shopping wild goose chase.

Spicy Cabbage Salad with sliced green apple, julienned carrots, and cherry tomatoes on a platter

Serious Eats / Shao Z.

Why It Works

  • Cabbage, green apple, and carrot stand in for the green papaya more traditionally used, while still hitting those same crunchy, tart, and sweet notes.
  • Crushing the garlic and red chile with salt under a knife simulates the effect of a mortar and pestle.

Meat might be the star of the grill, but a good cookout isn't complete without great sides, especially a crisp, refreshing salad. One of my favorite salads to serve alongside grilled steak or spicy kebabs is a green papaya salad, which takes different forms throughout Southeast Asia. The most well-known version here in the States is from Thailand, where it's called som tum.

Som tum can also take many different forms: It can be made with fruit like pineapple, apple, or melon, or vegetables like radish, cabbage, and carrots. There's also seafood som tum with shrimp and crab. Regardless of the specific type, the basic principle of a good som tum is to use a mixture of ingredients that together contribute crunch, sweetness, and tartness, all dressed in a tangy and spicy dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chile pepper.

For this recipe, I decided to work with ingredients that you can easily find at any well-stocked supermarket. Instead of using green papaya, which can be difficult to find, I opted for a combination of cabbage, carrot, and green apple, which provide a good balance of crunch, sweetness, and sourness.

Traditionally, Southeast Asian green papaya salads are made in a mortar and pestle, with the pestle used to pulverize dressing ingredients like garlic and gently bruise the papaya itself so it absorbs more of the dressing. Once again, in an attempt to make this recipe as accessible as possible to all home cooks, I've skipped that in favor of some basic knife work to achieve similar results.

For the garlic, that means working it into a paste with the fresh chiles on your cutting board with the help of some kosher salt and the side of the knife (if you're not familiar with that technique, you can also take a look at Daniel's guide to mincing garlic, which has photos demonstrating the "knife-puréeing" method).

Pile of julienned carrots on a cutting board.

Serious Eats / Shao Z.

Once the garlic is crushed into a purée and the dressing made, the rest of the salad is as simple as tossing everything together. My personal preference is to julienne the carrots, halve the cherry tomatoes, cut the cabbage into bite-size pieces, and thinly slice the apple. Give the cabbage a small head start with the dressing before adding the other ingredients to help the crunchy leaves turn more tender.

When you're ready to serve, sprinkle the salad with roasted peanuts, then set it out and see just how quickly your guests forget all about that meat sizzling on the grill.

June 2015

Recipe Facts

Active: 30 mins
Total: 30 mins
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • 4 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 2 fresh red bird’s eye chile peppers, seeded and diced (see notes)

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 tablespoons fresh juice from 1 lime

  • 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce

  • 2 teaspoons light brown sugar, plus more as needed

  • 1/2 head green cabbage, quartered, cored, and cut into bite-size pieces

  • 1 small carrot, julienned

  • 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

  • 1 Granny Smith apple, halved, cored, and thinly sliced

  • 1 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Directions

  1. Combine garlic and chile one a work surface and sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon salt on top. Using the side and back of your knife, carefully smash the garlic and chile together to create a paste (see here under "knife-puréeing" for visuals and an explanation of the technique).

    Working garlic and red chiles into a paste with the side of a knife.

    Serious Eats / Shao Z.

  2. Transfer garlic-chile purée to a large mixing bowl and stir in lime juice, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Mix well, taste, and add more sugar if needed.

  3. Add cabbage and toss to coat. Let stand 5 minutes.

  4. Mix in carrot, tomatoes, and apple. Transfer to a serving bowl or plate, top with peanuts and serve.

    Adding sliced apple to a salad bowl with cabbage, julienned carrot, and cherry tomatoes.

    Serious Eats / Shao Z.

Notes

Feel free to use more or less red chile depending on your spice preference. You can also keep the seeds for more heat.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
178 Calories
12g Fat
14g Carbs
7g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 178
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 12g 16%
Saturated Fat 2g 10%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 319mg 14%
Total Carbohydrate 14g 5%
Dietary Fiber 4g 14%
Total Sugars 6g
Protein 7g
Vitamin C 21mg 103%
Calcium 48mg 4%
Iron 1mg 4%
Potassium 355mg 8%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)