Sometime in September 2011, outside the Bull and Last pub in Hampstead (review here) and whilst tucking into roast beef and drinking cider, Bella, Jen and I concocted a plan. We’d all done a fair bit of travelling pre and post university, but after two years in full time employment our feet were getting rather itchy. So we decided to use Christmas as a way of stretching our limited two weeks holiday into three, and explore Laos and Cambodia. We spent Christmas Day in the air, eating unseasonal Emirates food and then gawking at the amount of gold in Dubai airport. We changed in Bangkok and then flew into Luang Prabang in Northern Laos. I have two crystal clear memories of this journey. The first is the glint of a golden temple roof, peeking over dense mountain forest, seen through the propellers of our little plane which spun the rays from the evening sun into a web of shimmering light. The second is of the bridge into Luang Prabang. Airports and their surrounds often feel very generic, and it took this woobly wooden bridge, which improbably took the weight of our car, to make me realise just where I was. In Asia. For the first time. Over the next three weeks we travelled to the north of Laos, then flew down to the south of the country, before making our way overland to Phnom Penh, to Kep on the coast and then back up to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, from where we sadly flew home.
We had excellent food throughout our trip, including lots of fried chicken noodle and fruit shakes, but my favourite dish by far was green papaya salad which I had a number of times. It’s called som tam in Thailand, where it is frequently served with beef jerky, but to me it will always be typically Laos. The plate of this salad that I remember most vividly is the one I had on New Year’s Day. After a late night lighting Chinese lanterns and dodging errant fireworks, we’d flown from Luang Prabang down to Pakse early that morning. A short bus ride later, which answered the question how many people can you fit in a tuk-tuk (13 people, 4 monks, 2 goats and chicken, in case you were wondering), we arrived in Champasak and found a place to stay, a rather rundown guesthouse which nevertheless had lovely sunset views of the Mekong river. Determined to make the most of our time, despite our tiredness, we headed straight out to Wat Phu that afternoon.
I loved Wat Phu, and in hindsight, much preferred it to the overly crowed Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a tribute to the Hindu god Shiva, but was converted into a Buddhist place of worship so includes icons from both religions. Now in ruins, the rocky paths are overhung with beautiful white franchipani trees, and the arduous climb to the top (Jen got ‘stumpy’ – step grumpy) is rewarded with stunning views of the valley below. It’s a peaceful place, despite the tourists, and our explorations into the surrounding undergrowth, felt like just that, explorations. Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat may be where Tomb Raider was filmed, but it was hard to feel very Lara Croft when surrounded by hoards of people all after the same photo.
After an afternoon of climbing and scrambling over rocks; hot, dusty and exhausted we headed back to our guesthouse. While the other two tried to wash the dirt off with ineffectual showers (water pressure is not something Laos and Cambodia value apparently), I sat down at the little attached café and ordered a green papaya salad as a snack. It arrived quickly, the fresh green papaya coated in a hot, sweet sauce and topped with salty peanuts. I’m a big advocate of food synergy – the best meals of my life aren’t the fanciest, but the ones that were just what I fancied in that moment. It left me feeling cleaner, and more refreshed and revived than our pathetic showers ever managed to.
Even now, over three years later, whenever I am feeling hot and bothered I crave this salad. I’ve found a pretty good version at La Du Du, a Vietnamese restaurant in West Hampstead, but it is served with pork and prawns, which seems gilding the lily to me. I wanted to recreate the simple, bold flavours of the salad I remembered. I found a green papaya in an Asian supermarket in China Town (Loon Fung, Gerrard Street), but was shocked at how expensive it was – just over £5. I knew the dominate flavours would be lime and chilli, but I also needed sugar (I had some coconut palm sugar in my cupboard which I used) for sweetness, ginger and garlic to add depth, and fresh basil and mint and toasted peanuts to finish. Ingredients assembled I tinkered with methods and ratios until I was happy. And happy I was. Definant of the weather, and ignoring my shivers, I ate it outside. I can’t wait to make it again in the hot summer, when I know it will be the perfect refreshment.
Recipe for green papaya salad
1 green papaya
4 garlic cloves
A thumb sized piece of ginger
1 red chilli, seeds removed
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp palm sugar or sugar
Juice of two limes
A handful of mint
A handful of basil (Thai basil if you can get it)
A handful of peanuts
Chop the garlic, ginger and chilli together until they form a paste.
Mix the paste with fish sauce, sugar and lime juice.
Grate the papaya and toss with the dressing, mint and basil leaves.
Dry fry the peanuts, roughly chop and sprinkle on top.
Serve with a Beer Laos, if you can find one!