Back Eat & Drink » Food Culture » Snack Attack » Gỏi Đu Đủ Reflects the Mekong Region's Culinary and Cultural Wisdoms

Gỏi Đu Đủ Reflects the Mekong Region's Culinary and Cultural Wisdoms

As the cicadas begin to sing in the tamarind canopies along Pasteur Street after the first monsoon rain, vivid scenes from my formative years flash by in my mind. My cheeks became flushed and my eyes teary, but not from the harsh sun and wind, nor the frustration of losing multiple marble games; it was the sight, or rather, the scent of a papaya salad enveloped in Cô Ri pungent anchovy sauce.

After leaving my hometown in the western part of Quảng Trị, I had a chance to sample similar papaya salads in Laos and later in Saigon, a city teeming with vibrant, diverse cultures. It was by traveling that I realized how my rustic childhood treat contains multitudes, encapsulating the nature, lifestyle, and culinary artistry of the vast Mekong Delta.

The staple treat of a region

Thailand is widely regarded by food enthusiasts as the birthplace of papaya salad. On any busy street, you can hear the rhythmic pounding of mortars and pestles. Papaya salad, or som tum, is registered by the Thai Department of Cultural Promotion as an intangible cultural heritage dish. Google also honored this dish on December 14, 2021, with a special doodle on its homepage.

Google’s homepage honors papaya salad with a doodle. Image via Google.

However, like many beloved dishes worldwide, the exact origin of papaya salad remains unclear. Most historians believe it originated in Laos, as it was a common dish in the Isaan region, which borders Laos in northeastern Thailand. The name “som tum” combines two Thai words meaning “sour-spicy” and “pounded” — the key elements that create its distinctive flavor.

Another version of papaya salad, tam mak hung, is popular in traditional Lao cuisine. The Rough Guide to Laos summarized: “Another quintessential Lao dish is tam mak hung, made from shredded papaya, garlic, chilies, lime juice, padekp and sometimes dried shrimp and crab paste. One variation is tam kûay tani, which substitutes papaya with bananas and eggplants.” Although tam mak hung looks similar to som tum, its essence lies in the use of padekp (Laotian fermented fish sauce) which boasts a much stronger aroma.

Lao's tam mak hung is made from shredded papaya, garlic, chili, lime juice, and padekp. Photo via Thanh Niên.

Meanwhile, Cambodia's bok lo hong utilizes tamarind, galangal, and prohok fish paste, while the usual fish sauce is replaced by salted crab, giving the dish a splendidly salty and umami flavor. Similarly, thin baw thee thoke from Myanmar, is made with shredded papaya, onions, and cilantro mixed with a fragrant tamarind sauce. And in many other locales, creative ingredient pairings have brought about countless interesting twists on the salad.

The offering from Mekong's bountiful nature

The main ingredient of the dish, papaya, originated from the Americas and was brought to Asia by Spanish colonizers. Papaya grows quickly but is highly sensitive to frost, thriving best in tropical climates. It’s no surprise that it is widely distributed in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and beyond.

The tropical monsoon climate features high temperatures year-round. Following the seasonal principle of “nurturing yang in spring and summer, and nurturing yin in autumn and winter,” papaya salad is considered an effective cooling dish due to its refreshing and nutritious qualities. The spiciness of the salad also helps cool the body by inducing sweat.

A plate of papaya salad showcases the colorful and amicable nature of the delta. Photo via Traveloka.

The Mekong River, the tenth largest in terms of discharge volume, not only provides abundant water resources but also supports ample biodiversity. It nurtures and fosters the economic, cultural, social, and ecological values of the region. Here, agriculture flourishes with an abundance of fresh produce: from long beans, tomatoes, and limes to aquaculture crops like shrimps, snakeheads, and red-clawed crabs. A single plate of salad encapsulates the vibrant and intimate riverine environment. In Laos and Thailand, tam mak hung and som tum are often enjoyed with sticky rice, a signature crop of the region’s long-standing agricultural tradition.

Seasoned with local beliefs and customs

The cuisines of Indochinese countries are characterized by a harmonious and distinctive style preserved over centuries. Firstly, it emphasizes a combination of flavors: sourness, sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, and spiciness; secondly, it adheres to the principles of the Five Elements, which include cold, heat, warmth, coolness, and neutrality.

Papaya salad reflects the culinary philosophy of Southeast Asian countries. Photo via Aday Magazine.

Why the focus on flavors? The region rarely features overly complicated recipes or elaborate cooking process, instead prioritizing taste and ingredients. When it comes to the art of seasoning, Cambodians are masters, often using ingredients like clove, cinnamon, star anise, garlic, shallot, lime, and cilantro to create a complex mixture known as kroeng, which is difficult to replicate without a recipe.

Dishes are skillfully prepared to balance the yin-yang elements. For papaya salad, tomatoes and vegetables (yin) are mixed with warming ingredients (yang) like dried shrimp, garlic, and chilies. To harmonize with the cooling (yin) fermented fish sauces, diners can pair the salad with sticky rice or regular rice, warming (yang) foods. The acidity of lime juice also softens the strong salty flavors of the sauces.

Are mortars and pestles what make papaya salad papaya salad? Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Living off the river's resources, locals have long relied primarily on agriculture. They hold a deep reverence for nature, especially through the practice of fertility worship (tín ngưỡng phồn thực). As author Hồ Thị Hồng Lĩnh explains, “People pray for abundant crops to sustain life and for proliferation to ensure survival and growth [...] worship begins with belief; ‘phồn’ means many, and ‘thực’ means flourishing. Thus, fertility worship is the belief in the flourishing of all things.”

The mortar and pestle, traditionally used for pounding, grinding, and crushing, have evolved into symbols of fertility worship, with the pestle representing the male phallus and the mortar the female yoni. The act of pounding embodies copulation and procreation. Nguyễn Quang Long's verse captures this essence: “In summer’s heat, pounding with glee / In winter’s chill, pounding with spree…” From the sunny fields to busy modern streets, just as in my childhood memories, an ever-present rhythmic pounding echoes through the making of sumptuous papaya salad feasts.

And perhaps, its delightful essence can only be captured when prepared the old-fashioned way, with a good old mortar and pestle?

What's in a Vietnamese papaya salad?

In Vietnam, papaya salad recipes vary depending on the geographical region, incorporating seasonal elements from each province.

In the north, beef jerky and pig ear papaya salad is the most common variation. Simple and elegant, this dish consists of shredded papaya mixed with pig ear, beef jerky, and herbs like mint and basil, all thoroughly infused with a tangy sweet-and-sour fish sauce. Meanwhile, the central region focuses more on depths of flavor without being too ostentatious; most dishes here are characterized by their spiciness and saltiness. Papaya salads in this region, though uncomplicated, are in no way lacks in flavor, as locals believe that a dish must be able to vigorously “wakes” your palate to be truly delicious.

The Hanoian version of papaya salad is served with large slices of beef and beef jerky. Photo via aFamily.

Why do they prefer spicy food? A theory from the Hue Cultural Research Center suggests: “Living in an environment full of ‘treacherous terrain and hazardous conditions,’ the hot chili has helped them withstand nature's challenges, fight off the cold, and cope with the various harmful elements prevalent in their new surroundings.”

In the south, papaya salad reflects the seasonal abundance of ingredients. In May, as the summer breeze sweeps across the Hậu River, shrimps are plentiful in canals, ponds, and lakes, so they are prominently featured in the cool and nutty papaya shrimp salad of the Mekong Delta. In the lunar September, when anchovies are caught, the papaya anchovy salad mixed with morning glory emerges. The delta's waterways also facilitate the spread and mix of different cultures, as evidenced by the Khmer-style papaya salad from Tri Tôn (An Giang), or the pairing of papaya salad and phá lấu, a dish of Chinese origin, which is becoming popular in Saigon's street food scene.

Khmer-style papaya salad from Tri Tôn is served with grilled beef and half-hatched egg. Photo via Sài Gòn Tiếp Thị.

Culture-wise, papaya salad highlights a notable feature of the delta's cuisine: its inclusiveness. Home chefs eagerly observe and learn from the culinary traditions of neighboring communities, transforming these influences into varieties that suit the local palate and reflect the distinct flavors of each region.

As time goes by, papaya salad may extend beyond the confines of the Mekong Delta's nature and culture. However, it's that earthly and heavenly combination of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter taste central to the dish's identity that shall remain, wherever it goes and whatever new form it might take on.

Related Articles

Thi Nguyễn

in Snack Attack

A Tale of Two Fruits: The Colonial History of Durian and Mangosteen

Although both durian and mangosteen are native to Southeast Asia, their reputation — especially from a western point of view — leads two very contrasting fates: the latter is considered a luscious del...

in Snack Attack

An Ode to Dried Fruit, Vietnam's Parent-Approved Way for Children to Sugar Load

I first knew dried fruit as a category of munchy snacks that had my parents’ approval.

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: In D5, a Family Durian Xôi Xiêm Recipe Inspired by Cambodia

At first glance, xôi xiêm sầu riêng — or sticky rice with egg custard and durian — may appear plain-looking, but apart from being a tasty sweet treat, this simple dish also holds stories of life durin...

Khôi Phạm

in Snack Attack

For the Love of Our Cooling, Affordable and Ubiquitous Trà Đá

In Saigon, trà đá vendors don’t exist, simply because every single eatery is in itself a trà đá vendor.

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: A Thai Feast on a Hẻm Pavement, With Vietnamese Fusion Twists

While Thailand and Vietnam have long been perpetual rivals in the football arena, at this streetside Hẻm Gem, the two cultures forge a harmonious relationship.

Khôi Phạm

in Snack Attack

The Yin and Yang of Saigon Street Desserts: Black Sesame Soup and Bean Curd

In the back of my mind lives a chorus of street calls: the staccato pauses in a recorded advertisement "bánh mì Sài Gòn, một ngàn một ổ" (hot Saigon bánh mì, only thousand [dong] per loaf), the clink-...

Partner Content