“Try a piece of jackfruit,” offered Yao Richard with a smile the first time we met at Live Oak Gardens wholesale nursery in New Iberia.
She handed me a slice, and we struck up a conversation about the improbable foods we can grow in semitropical South Louisiana. She has been introducing me to new locally grown flavors ever since — the corn-like taste of bamboo shoots, the salty bite of homegrown olives, and recently, the fresh crunch of a green papaya salad.
All these foods she grows in her yard on Jefferson Island, near New Iberia and just down the way from the wholesale nursery where she and her husband Mike Richard Jr. manage daily operations in their family-owned business. Sitting at the edge of Rip Van Winkle Gardens, the Richards’ yard is dotted with papaya trees which, when I visited in early December, were hanging heavy with football-sized green papayas. Richard had already picked buckets worth to share and to use for the salad she would teach me to make.
I slipped off my shoes at the door and stepped into the bustle of her kitchen. Richard had three dishes in the works — purple sticky rice steaming on the stove, marinated pork in the air fryer, and cheesy garlic bread rising near the oven.
There is a physicality to the way she cooks. Several times she grabbed the woven basket of rice set over a pot of steaming water. Holding the high sides of what looked like an inverted hat, she would shake it, tossing the entire mass of rice into the air, then catch it in the basket surrounded by a cloud of steam.
The papaya she chopped in midair. Since the recipe calls for it to be shredded or julienned, I imagined a cutting board involved or a grater. There were neither. Richard grabbed the papaya in her fist and whacked at it with a knife held perpendicular to the oblong fruit, creating grooves in the flesh which she then shaved off — resulting in a pile of finely julienned papaya.
“How did you learn that?” I asked, incredulous that she had not sliced her hand.
To my surprise, Richard said she did not cook much growing up in Thailand. “My mom cooked three meals a day which involved a lot of work,” she explained, “But I only helped with the easy stuff: prepping, cooking rice and washing dishes.”
When she moved to Australia, she started learning the intricacies of Thai cooking when she found work in a Thai restaurant. From dishwasher to sous chef to waitstaff, she worked her way up the ranks and went on to attend business school as her ability to speak English improved. Meanwhile, her sister had moved to south Louisiana where Richard came to visit, met her husband, and started a family.
The Richards’ school-aged son was my spice-wary ally. He likes crumbling cracklins on his salad, but since he does not like it spicy, Richard planned to only add one of the seven chili peppers she typically uses. However, I noticed when she grabbed her chili peppers from the freezer, she dropped four of the deceptively cold peppers in her mortar — a compromise. They were small.
Richard used the mortar to mesh the ingredients together with a pestle. This traditional clay mortar and wooden pestle is used in making a variety of tam-style pounded salads, (tam meaning “to pound” in Thai). This evening, we kept it mostly local with the green papaya, chilis and cherry tomatoes from Richard’s garden.
Small as they were, I tasted the chilis. I was grateful for the delicious rice, pork and bread, which helped mellow the spiciness of the salad. I was also appreciative of the sympathetic smiles I got from the Richards’ son.
Richard sent me home with one of her papayas, and I recently made the salad myself. I even tried her midair chopping method but lacking the skills, I finished it off on a cutting board. In lieu of a properly sized mortar and pestle, I smashed the salad with my hands like I was kneading dough. I served it with ginger and orange juice marinated salmon (oranges I picked ahead of the recent freeze and ginger that Richard had given me to plant in my yard several months ago). Two out of three of my kids tried it and liked it, especially with extra cracklins!
Green Papaya Salad
Recipe is by Yao Richard
1 teaspoon to ½ tablespoon sweetener (sweet palm sugar or coconut sugar recommended)
1 clove garlic, peeled
1-7 chili peppers or dried chili pepper flakes to taste
3-6 slices lime with peeling
2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ – ¾ cup small cherry tomatoes
1 medium-sized green papaya, peeled and shredded (seeds discarded)
1. Combine sugar, garlic and chili in a Thai-style clay mortar with wooden pestle, then pound to form a paste-like mixture. In lieu of a mortar and pestle, finely chop the garlic and chili peppers together and then add garlic, chili and sweetener to a medium-sized bowl.
2. Squeeze juice from 3-4 slices of lime into the mortar or bowl, adding the lime peeling as well. Pound again or use the back of a wooden spoon to mash the mixture together.
3. Add fish sauce.
4. Add cherry tomatoes, gently breaking them open with the pestle or wooden spoon. Larger cherry tomatoes may be chopped to your preferred size before being added to the mix.
5. Add shredded papaya, lightly pound and toss until all ingredients are well mixed. If using a bowl, the salad can be mashed with clean hands or the bottom of a measuring cup. Adjust to your taste by adding more sweetener, lime juice, chili and fish sauce if necessary.
6. Serve with fried pork rinds, khaep mu (also known as cracklins) scattered on top. Goes well as a side with sticky rice and pork.