My memories of Thailand will always be vivid - in technicolor & in surround sound. It is impossible for me to forget the country where my husband proposed to me or the days I spent balling my eyes out glued to a TV set, watching Princess Di's funeral.
From the old capital of Ayuthaya, that was until the 18th century, the center of
Thailand (now the resting place quiet of the city’s aged temples) to the North - the birthplace of the earliest Thai civilization where the provinces of Sukhothai & Chiang Mai dazzle with their vibrant festivals & breathtaking architecture, Thailand is a place I will visit again & again in my memories until I one day visit it again in reality.
The first time I heard anyone raving endlessly about Thai cuisine were my parents. I was about 10 years old & they had just returned from a couple of weeks in Thailand. They couldn't stop talking about the fruit (papaya in particular which with its deep orange & sugar sweet glistening flesh had my parents completely enthralled) to the roadside eateries serving pad thai, fried rice & papaya salad.
These descriptions were etched deep in my subconscious and I spent the next few decades visiting 'authentic' Thai restaurants in every city I ever visited. Though tangible, the real magic of Thai food remained elusive to me, till I finally spent those many blissful weeks in Thailand.
On a visit to these remote caves, which consist of labyrinth of five interconnected caves, stretching for many kilometers, only 2 are possible to explore - Tham Phra Nawn (1180 ft) and Tham Seua Dao (1770 ft) which were illuminated
by a sparse array of electric lights.
We were surrounded by these amazing rock formations - stalagmites & stalactites, millions of years old & as we kept walking deeper & deeper into the belly of the caves, we realized that these caves had little enclaves high in the walls where hermits & monks had possibly lived in isolation, a long time ago.
The unexpected surprise was coming onto a beautiful Buddha temple in the heart of the cave. This was probably one of the most surreal experiences of my life - the musty scent, the absolute solitude except for the drip-drip of water as it fell from the ceilings , being cloaked in semi-darkness all the while, remembering an old legend that states - if you pick up one rock or pebble in these caves, you will be lost forever. Now, am I superstitious by nature? - no, of course not; but neither was I about to tempt fate!
As we descended from the caves, we came upon an elderly woman, pounding into a massive earthen mortar & pestle, preparing Papaya salad from scratch. We stood there as she made us bowl of the most amazing papaya salad we had ever eaten.
Recently, when our friend Shashi (who is Thai) offered to teach me how to make authentic Papaya salad, I jumped at the opportunity and what follows is her recipe.
ingredients to Papaya salad are - dried shrimp (can be omitted if it
must), Thai red chillies, palm sugar, lime juice, grape tomatoes, fish
sauce, shredded carrots & raw green papaya, of course.
To shred the green raw papaya into thin strips, you will need a vegetable peeler with a serrated/fluted edge (available in Asian stores). When shredding the papaya, discard the green outer skin. begin shredding at the top half of the papaya, turning as the papaya as you go to uniformly shred the fruit.
Cook's Note - Shashi had to bring to my attention several times that the strips should be 2-3 inches long - you do not want long threads of papaya.
In a large mortar & pestle or glass mixing bowl, pound Thai red chillies (quantity depends on your tolerance to heat) with a pestle till crushed.
Cook's Note - If you are using dried shrimp, roast the dried shrimp till they release a strong fishy aroma then soak these in water for 15-20 minutes. Drain the water completely. Pound these with the pestle first & then add the chilly. Continue as shown.
Add garlic & pound the garlic till crushed. In a non-stick frying pan, saute a cup of raw peanuts till golden brown (few minutes). Watch and stir constantly as these burn easily.
Add the peanuts to the mortar. Pound with the pestle till coarsely crushed.
Add the freshly squeezed lime juice and continue to pound with the pestle. Add the palm sugar (it is very hard so you may have to microwave for 30 seconds to be able to spoon it out) & the fish sauce and continue to pound till completely blended.
Add a handful of grape tomatoes and pound till crushed but not pureed.
Shred some carrot into the papaya for added color. Add the shredded papaya and carrot into the mortar and pound for about 3-5 minutes mixing & turning with a large spoon at the same time so all the ingredients are well blended.
Taste and adjust seasonings. And now, get a spoon and dig in!
Serve on a platter, on a bed of lettuce leaves. This is by far one of the most refreshing, appetizing salads I have ever eaten. It is an absolutely favorite in our family & we usually make a lunch of it.
THAI PAPAYA SALAD
( This recipe is by no means an exact science. So adjust seasoning to your individual taste)
4-5 cups shredded raw green papaya
3-4 Thai red chillies
3 cloves garlic, peeled & crushed
1/2 cup grape tomatoes
3-4 tbs palm sugar
1/2 cup roasted raw peanuts
Juice of 1-2 limes
2 tbs dried roasted shrimp, soaked in water (is using)
1/4 cup shredded carrot
1 tbs fish sauce
In a large earthen mortar & pestle or glass mixing bowl, pound 3-4 Thai red chillies (quantity depends on your tolerance to heat) with a pestle till crushed.Cook's Note - If you are using dried shrimp, you would first soak these in water for 15-20 minutes. Drain the water completely. Pound these with the pestle first & then add the chilly. Continue as shown.
Add garlic & pound
the garlic till crushed. Add the peanuts to the mortar. Pound with the pestle till coarsely crushed. Add
the freshly squeezed lime juice and continue to pound with the pestle.
Next, add the palm sugar & the fish sauce and continue to pound till completely blended. Add a handful of grape tomatoes and pound till crushed but not pureed.
Shred the carrot into the papaya for added color. Add the shredded papaya and carrot into the mortar and pound for about 3-5 minutes mixing & turning with a large spoon at the same time so all the ingredients are well blended.
Taste and adjust seasonings.