This green papaya salad recipe makes Cambodia’s Bok Lahong or Nhoam Lahong, a fragrant, crunchy salad that’s a little funky, spicy, sour, salty, and a tad sweet. Typically eaten as a late afternoon snack, this bespoke Cambodian salad is made to order, and has cousins in Laos (Tum Som), Thailand (Som Tum), and Vietnam (Gỏi Đủ Đủ).
Our Cambodian green papaya salad recipe makes Nhoam Lahong or Bok Lahong, a fresh, aromatic, crunchy papaya salad that is a little funky, a little spicy, a little sour, a little salty, and a little sweet. In other words, it’s a well-balanced salad, and this is arguably what sets it apart from its bolder cousins in Laos (where pounded salads are called Tum Som), Thailand (Som Tam), and Vietnam (Gỏi Đủ Đủ), which are, respectively, a lot funkier, more fiery, and more fragrant.
Typically bought from a papaya salad stall at a market or on the street and eaten as a late afternoon snack, green papaya salads are also eaten in restaurants and made at home. This incredibly delicious and super-easy green papaya salad recipe makes another of Cambodia’s best salads and it’s next in our series of Cambodian salads that we’re recipe testing for our Cambodian cookbook projects. It’s not only scrummy, it’s also a cinch to prepare.
So far in our series on classic Cambodian salad recipes we’ve published recipes for an addictive Cambodian minced pork larb, an aromatic grilled beef salad, and, one of my favourites right now, a light and tasty pork and jicama salad. In the days ahead, we’ll be sharing recipes for a wonderful Cambodian banana flower chicken salad, and a green mango and smoked fish salad.
If you enjoy this Cambodian green papaya salad recipe and our other Cambodian recipes, please consider supporting our work here on Grantourismo by becoming a patron of our one-of-a-kind Cambodian cookbook and Cambodian culinary history on Patreon. This epic project documents the stories and recipes of real Cambodian cooks across the country for the first time, and you can support it for as little as the price of a Cambodian bok lahong a month. Click through to browse all our recipes on Grantourismo from Asia and beyond.
Green Papaya Salad Recipe – How to Make Cambodian Bok Lahong
This Cambodian green papaya salad recipe makes a salad that’s known as both a ‘nhoam’ and a ‘bok’ in Cambodia’s Khmer language. A nhoam, also spelt gnoam, is a salad made with ingredients that are cooked, such as poached chicken, wok-fried prawns, barbecued pork, etc. The other kind of salad found in Cambodian cuisine is a p’lear, which is made with raw ingredients, such as raw beef or raw fish that are ‘cooked’ in a lime juice-based dressing in much the same way as a ceviche or eaten raw like an Italian carpaccio.
‘Bok’ refers to something that is made by being pounded or partly-pounded in a mortar and pestle – ‘bok’ being the sound that’s made by the pestle hitting the mortar, as in ‘bok, bok, bok, bok’ – and it usually applies to papaya salads, of which there are countless, as well as dips and relishes. Typically bought from a papaya salad stall at a market or on the street and eaten as a late afternoon snack, green papaya salads are also eaten in restaurants and made at home.
The Lao, Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian recipes for the green papaya salad are what Southeast Asians call ‘same same but different’. While they all share many of the same ingredients (papaya, cherry tomatoes, peanuts, fish sauce, lime juice, etc) there are flavours, ingredients and measurements of ingredients that set each salad apart from the next.
The Lao green papaya salad tends to be funkier in flavour, the Thai green papaya salads are typically fiery, and the Vietnamese green papaya salad is often more fragrant, sometimes a tad sweeter. I find the Cambodian green papaya salad to be the most balanced: a little funky, spicy, sour, salty, and sweet. And that’s not always the case with Cambodian food, where balance is often achieved across the whole table rather than in a single dish.
The Lao and Thai green papaya salad recipes make a spicier, even fiery salad, as the recipes always call for a lot more bird’s eye chillies than the Vietnamese and Cambodian green papaya salad recipes. I compared 16 recipes when researching this dish and the Thai and Lao green papaya salad recipes typically call for 4-6 bird’s eye chillies, whereas the Vietnamese usually recommend the cooler, longer red chillies and the Cambodian recipes recommend anything from 1-4 bird’s eye chillies.
The Lao green papaya salad recipes tend to be a lot funkier than the others, with some including a combination of fish sauce, shrimp paste, and padaek, a fermented fish sauce or paste that’s similar to Cambodia’s prahok, whereas the Cambodian green papaya salad recipes generally only include one (or two at most) of those funky fermented ingredients. Generally fish sauce or shrimp paste, say, but I’ve not yet seen fish sauce, shrimp paste and prahok in the one recipe.
With most Cambodian salads, the dressing is made separately to the salad – generally first, so it can rest so the flavours meld and open up – and it’s later added to the vegetables, fruit and herbs, and combined with gloved hands. With the ‘bok’ family of salads, the ingredients for the dressing are first pounded in a wooden mortar and pestle. That dressing is then left to sit while you grate, shred, julienne, and chop your fresh ingredients, and then they’re all combined in the mortar and pestle, where you might lightly bruise them, or in a separate salad bowl, once again with hands.
This is because Cambodians tend to prefer that their green papaya salads still have some body, texture and crunch, which is another thing that sets the Cambodian papaya salad recipes apart from recipes for Thai and Lao green papaya salads. Because the Thais and Laos typically pound all the salad ingredients together in the mortar, they can be very wet. Some look like they’re sitting in a soup. Thais and Laos love this as they can mop up all those spicy juices with sticky rice.
This Cambodian green papaya salad recipe makes a basic bok lahong. But don’t forget that this is a bespoke salad that’s made to order and can be customised. When you’re ordering this from a street food vendor in Cambodia – or Thailand or Laos – you will see locals having long conversations with the cooks.
They’re most probably not discussing the weather. Rather, the customer will be telling the cook exactly how many chillies they want, whether they want it a little sour or sweeter than usual, and how funky they want it, so whether they only want fish sauce or shrimp paste, or whether they’d like prahok or padaek added. The beauty of this is that it gives you an opportunity to get creative.
Tips for Making this Green Papaya Salad Recipe
If you’re making this Cambodian green papaya salad recipe for your family or friends, by all means, follow our recipe the first time. But the next time you make it, ask how everyone liked it and adjust it to your tastes. If you’ve got a big gathering, and you all have a glass of something in hand, you could share the
work fun and let people have a go at making their own if you have a few mortar and pestles.
Which brings us to the mortar and pestle. If you regularly cook Southeast Asian food, you should have a mortar and pestle at home, but you really should have two. A stone or granite mortar and pestle is typically used for making curry pastes and Cambodian kroeungs, the herb and spice pastes that form the basis for so many Cambodian dishes. Wooden mortar and pestles are used for pounded salads such as these, as well as dips and relishes, as you want to soften them or bruise them, you don’t want to pound them to a paste.
For papaya salads, we recommend buying the biggest wooden mortar and pestle you can find. Even if you don’t pound all the ingredients in it, you’ll need the size if you’re feeding more than one person at a time. If you’ve never used a mortar and pestle before, we have some tips.
Your salad shouldn’t get too wet if you follow the recipe, however, one way to ensure it doesn’t is to add half the dressing you’ve pounded, combine all the ingredients, then add the rest, as you like. A basic Cambodian green papaya salad recipe does not typically contain carrot or cucumber, although some do, however, these ingredients help ensure the salad still has texture and doesn’t become a soggy wet mess.
As with the recent pork salad and yam beans recipe we posted, we recommend that you do the dressing first and then prep your fruit, vegetables and herbs, so they don’t wilt, brown or oxidise, which fresh basil in particular has a tendency to do.
Do feel free to adapt this recipe to your taste or to use up any fresh veg, fruit or herbs you might have in the fridge. Don’t forget that this is typically a bespoke salad that’s made to order, which explains why there’s an infinite array of green papaya salad recipes out there, so do experiment.
Here in Cambodia, you’ll see green papaya salads made with pickled rice paddy crabs in Siem Reap and Battambang and other rice growing regions. In areas where pork features heavily, you’ll find papaya salad with pork skin and pork belly are favourites. Down on the coast, you’ll come across papaya salads with everything from plump shrimps to sweet crab meat. Buffalo and beef jerky and smoked fish also make appearances in papaya salads.
If locals are ordering their papaya salad on the street or in a market, they might eat it on its own or with sticky rice. In a casual eatery, they might also order barbecue chicken or pork. You could do the same if serving this salad at home. It’s also a fantastic salad for a Cambodian or Southeast Asian style picnic or barbecue, and we have lots of Cambodian barbecue recipes to go with it.
Cambodian Green Papaya Salad Recipe
- 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 2-3 bird’s eye chillies finely chopped
- 3 small purple shallots finely sliced
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp liquid palm sugar – or dissolve palm sugar in a little hot water first
- 4 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tbsp shrimp paste optional
- ¼ cup dried shrimps
- 1 large green papaya
- 1 small carrot
- 1 small cucumber
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1 cup mixed fresh fragrant herbs basil, mint, coriander etc
- 3 tbsp roasted peanuts chopped and crushed
- Throw the finely chopped bird’s eye chillies and garlic, finely sliced purple shallots, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, and optional shrimp paste (only add this if you like funky flavours) into your big wooden mortar and pestle and pound until everything is well combined and soft and juicy. You don’t want the consistency of a spice paste so don’t go too far.
- Soak your dried shrimps in a small dish of hot water for about ten minutes.
- Prep all your fresh fruit and vegetables, grating, shredding or julienning your green papaya, carrot and cucumber, and slicing your cherry tomatoes in half, then pop the lot in a big salad bowl.
- Wash and gently pat dry your fresh fragrant herbs – basil is essential, coriander and mint and also nice – pluck the basil and mint leaves from stalks, but leave some coriander sprigs in there. Add most to the salad bowl, leaving some to garnish.
- Drain your dried shrimps and add half to the salad bowl, along with two tablespoons of peanuts, and the juicy dressing that you first pounded until soft. Gently combine everything together, using gloved hands.
- Pile the salad onto a serving plate and then garnish with the remaining fresh herbs, dried shrimps, and peanuts, and serve immediately.
Do let us know if you make this Cambodian green papaya salad recipe as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.