Papaya salad might be my favorite dish in the world.
Maybe I'm hedging by saying "dish," so that sour cherries, fresh tomatoes, or whiskey can still be my favorite food, I don't know. But I'm telling you, papaya salad is way up there.
If you haven't had it, both "papaya" and "salad" are a little misleading. It's almost like a coleslaw, and feel free to use it as one. The papaya used for it is green - unripe - and shredded before being pounded in a mortar and pestle with lime juice, fish sauce or other source of salt (plain salt or soy sauce is fine to keep it vegan), fresh herbs and seasonings, and often some other vegetables - blanched long beans are common, as are tomatoes and raw Thai eggplant. I tend to use just papaya and tomato for the vegetables - I want the papaya to provide all the texture.
Papaya salad comes from Southeast Asia - it's often on Thai restaurant menus, and is called som tam in Thailand - and is perfect hot-weather food, but like I said, don't feel you have to limit it to other Southeast Asian contexts. Have it on a hot dog. Have it with some boiled crawfish or shrimp. Have it with fried chicken or fish.
This is more about technique than recipe. The two key things are, of course, shredding and pounding the papaya. Well, and finding green papaya in the first place. An Asian market is your best bet, though the Market Basket here in suburban New Hampshire carries it now, so who knows. You may be able to find it already shredded - I used to be able to. If you can't, you can use a mandoline or a very sharp knife, but I tell you what, I am in love with the Kom Kom miracle knife:
The Kom Kom works like a peeler - you pull it across the fruit (after you've peeled it, unlike the above photo) and instead of cutting away a layer of peel, it cuts thin julienned strips. Check it out:
It took me a few years of occasionally trying to make papaya salad to realize that you really HAVE to pound it. You can't just toss the shredded papaya with the seasonings. Pounding it tenderizes the unripe fruit and lets the seasonings seep in. You'd be surprised how hard you can pound it without mashing it.
Ideally you want to pound it in a Lao-style clay mortar, the important aspect of which is that it has a narrow bottom and high sides, which is perfect for this. I know it sounds like I'm saying you need a lot of special equipment. And maybe you do! But a regular mortar and pestle will work too, just not as easily.
This is less than half of the shredded papaya in the mortar. It'll shrink down a lot once pounded:
So everything about this is "to taste," but you want:
Fresh lime juice;
Fish sauce or other salt (salt, soy sauce, shrimp paste, crab paste, mud crabs);
Chile (I used a small red Thai chile);
Fresh herbs (mint, cilantro, culantro, and/or any basil - I also used sorrel this time, and was out of mint);
Other seasonings that appeal to you - I use ginger and lemongrass, garlic is common;
A little sugar;
Other vegetables if you like. I add a few cherry tomatoes. Parts of Thailand also add peanuts.
Pound the ingredients together, making sure the herbs are good and bruised, everything but the papaya (and long beans if you're using them) is pulverized, and the papaya is tenderized. There's a technique that this mortar lends itself naturally to of tossing the papaya a little with the pestle and then banging it against the side as it falls. Soon enough:
You want the flavors balanced - a little tart, a little sweet, very green and herbal, a bit spicy (sometimes very spicy).