Monday, January 9, 2012

Lao Food: Tum Maak Houng or Green Papaya Salad

Tum Maak Houng has it's origin in Laos and the Isaan part of Thailand. It is one of the most favorite dishes of Laos, beloved by all it's people and those who live abroad will go to great lengths to find the green, unripe papaya.  Eaten throughout the day, as part of a meal or anytime snacking, it is adored by young and old.  Whether you enjoy spicy hot food or not, there's a tum maak houng for you.
Tum maak houng is pounded in a mortar and pestle to meld all its flavors.
It is impossible to nail this down to a single recipe or to describe the flavors of Green Papaya Salad.  Everyone has their own preferences. Even in my own family, we argue about whether it is too spicy, too sweet, not salty enough or maybe it needs a touch of lime.  The flavors we're after are hot, salty, sour and sweet, in that order. That being said, my Dad would turn his nose up at any tum maak houng that contained even one grain of sugar. He liked it hot and salty with chunks of padek and just a touch of lime juice.  My sister Thi makes it super hot, and on the sweet side with padek and tamarind paste.  My sister Li adds tamarind paste but no padek. She uses nam pa or fish sauce instead, making it not as sweet nor as hot.  My version is closer to Li's. 

How hot is hot? Thi uses a handful of hot chili peppers!  Really, she does.  Her tum maak houng is very hot, salty, sour and sweet, all in perfect balance.  Plenty of sticky rice helps tame the heat for those less initiated.  As much as I enjoy those strong assertive flavors, when I make it for friends, I tone it way down, to only one or two hot peppers. Most of them can't handle even that much heat. But when I make it for myself and my husband, I'll add as many as five, hot enough to be respectable but not too hot that I can't eat it with abandon.  The debate over who makes the best tum maak houng will never end but one thing is certain, we can't live without it.  It's a national addiction.

Green papaya salad is simplicity itself needing only a handful of ingredients.  Here's how I make it, starting with an unripe papaya...
Peel the  papaya...

 ...shred the papaya. The shredding tool is quite handy, look for it at Asian markets, or you can use the coarse side of a box grater. You're looking for long thin strands.
 In a mortar and pestle, put 2 or 3 hot chilies, 1 garlic clove and a generous pinch of salt.

Pound to coarsely mash the chilies and garlic.

Add 3 to 4 cups shredded papaya, 1 shredded carrot, 1 to 1 1/2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 teaspoon shrimp paste, 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar and juice of half to a whole lime. Pound to bruise and soften the papaya, thoroughly mix everything together and taste.  Adjust the seasoning to your own perfect balance of hot, salty, sour and sweet.  And wake up your taste buds! 

 Tum maak houng with kiep moo and sticky rice, Lao food at its best!

More Lao food:

Lao food blogs I follow:

  • Sao Darly  Darly adores tum maak houng, she can hardly go a day without it.
  • Laocook  Chef Vienne elevates Lao food to haute cuisine.


    1. Hello Ting,

      It's great that I've found your wonderful blog. It looks great and is an excellent read! Thank you for sharing your lovely stories.

      Wow, what a great rendition of the famous Tum Muck Hoong, and the Kiep Moo is definitely a perfect complement. My mum makes dried fish and meat jerky, and these are also great to have with the lovely flavours of tum muck hoong.

      I am making tum muck hoong and kermit eggplants for the first time tomorrow. I hope it works out.

      I am starting a new blog about Lao food and was hoping that I can add a link to your wonderful website?

      Thanks Ting,

      All the best to you and your family.

      Sydney, Australia

    2. Thank you Ngeun for your kind comment. You can definitely link to my blog, spreading the love for Lao food and preserving Lao recipes has always been a goal of mine. I look forward to reading your blog.

    3. Green Papaya Salad originated in Laos, not Issan Thailand. The Issan region of Thailand did not exist at that time when the people of Laos invented Green Papaya Salad. When Laos lost its southwestern territory, this region became Issan Thailand and the people there continued to adopt Lao foods. Green Papaya Salad existed in Laos before Thailand had a region called Issan. Thus, Green Papaya Salad did not originate in Issan Thailand. Green Papaya Salad originated in Laos.

    4. This salad looks yummi!!!! would you add Shrimp? or am I americanizing it? =.)

    5. Sometimes dried shrimp is added and it really adds a lot of flavor. Give it a try!

    6. I love your green papaya salad. It is quite unique as you add chillis and garlic.

    7. Now they have papaya salad dressing on ebay. Very easy to make delicious somtum in the usa.