After returning from my first trip to Asia this past spring, I let essentially all of my passion projects fall to the wayside. My life has been veering further and further away from the path that I had envisioned for myself during the course of this past year. The bumpy detour jolted my equilibrium and obliterated my sense of joy and optimism for a good part of the year. Rather than avoid the gloom though, I buckled up and embraced the tumult that came my way. I leaned hard into the ugly, uncomfortable darkness, and it was in these quiet moments of solitude that I recognized that my completely depleted glass needed refilling.
Only recently have I started to embrace the fork in this imperfect little journey of mine and to open myself up again to the unknown possibilities of tomorrow. It was a long way up from the abyss that I fell into, but I can finally see light again. I still haven’t quite gotten my bearings yet and am still fumbling along this unpaved road. No doubt, I would not have been able to restart my stalled engine had it not been for the loving support of my entourage of strong and resilient women, for whom I’m immensely grateful to have in my life. Through them, I was reminded that with patience and time comes healing and clarity.
In striving to cultivate joy in my everyday moments, I find myself gravitating towards my creative endeavors again. I’ve started to make my way back into the kitchen and have been trying my hand at dishes that I’ve never made before. I also picked up my camera recently after months of not touching it. This time around, I’ve been looking through the viewfinder with a fresh pair of eyes, and I have a renewed enthusiasm for making culinary photos and capturing images of Paris. My writing, however, has been a bit slower to come back. I did manage to squeeze these words out of me for this blog post, albeit with a bit of effort. I’m rereading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and it has given me the gentle nudge that I need to resume my writing routine.
Seeing familiar faces and spaces during a short visit in the US last month further boosted my spirits. One of my aunties cooked so much food for me that I hardly knew what hunger was while I was home. Not only did she feed me, but she also taught me how to make a few dishes. I’ve been eating these foods since childhood but have never learned to make them, thinking that they were too complicated to throw together. One of these dishes was this Vietnamese green papaya salad topped with pork belly and shrimp (gỏi đu đủ tôm thịt). Turns out, this dish is a cinch to make and is composed of only a handful of ingredients. The most time consuming part is prepping the green papaya, which entails julienning it with a mandoline, soaking in salted water to extract the sap, and drying it. Once that is done, the rest is cake.
The key ingredient that really brings this salad together is the fresh aromatic herb rau răm, which is Vietnamese coriander. It adds a minty-citrus zing to the dish, and without it, the green papaya salad would fall flat. As a street food vendor in Graham Holliday’s Eating Viet Nam book says:
Take way the herbs and it’s not Vietnamese food anymore. Everything that goes with this dish makes the dish. The meat is secondary. It’s all about the herbs. Vietnamese food is nothing without the herbs.
Dressed with a traditional nước mắm sauce, this simple yet zestful salad will take your taste buds on an unforgettable flavor adventure that will have you begging for more once you empty your plate!
Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad
Makes 4 servings
1 green papaya (~750 g)
500 g pork belly
15 headless shrimp
Rau răm (Vietnamese coriander)
Crushed roasted peanuts
Nước mắm sauce
Peel the green papaya’s skin. Cut it in half across the middle, then halve each half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and julienne each quarter using a mandoline.
Soak the julienned papaya in cold water with about a tablespoon of salt for about 20 minutes. Give the papaya a squeeze to extract as much of the sap as possible. Then, drain and squeeze out the excess water with your hands. Rinse the papaya thoroughly and squeeze out the excess water once again. Evenly spread the julienned papaya onto a clean kitchen towel and allow to dry.
While the papaya is soaking in cold water, prepare the pork belly. Clean the surface by vigorously scraping the skin with a knife to remove any icky gunk. Keep scraping until nothing accumulates on the knife. Then, parboil the pork belly for about 10 minutes to remove any yucky scum. Pour out the dirty water, thoroughly rinse clean the pork belly and cooking pot. Bring salted water (2-3 tsp of salt) to a boil and add the pork belly. Continue to simmer at a gentle boil until thoroughly cooked. Once cooled, cut the pork into 4 x 3 cm slices that are about ¼ cm thick.
Bring a separate pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp. Scoop them out as soon as they turn pinkish-orange (about 5 minutes) and place them in a bowl of ice water. Once cool, peel the shell off. Slice each shrimp in half along its spine and remove the black vein, if there is one.
After rinsing and thoroughly drying the rau răm leaves, finely chop them.
In a large bowl, toss the green papaya with the chopped rau răm, while reserving some for garnishing. Then, top with the slices of pork and shrimp. Garnish with crushed roasted peanuts and the remaining rau răm. Dress with nước mắm sauce. Enjoy as a first course or as a light meal.
Bonne dégustation & thanks for reading!