The core difference between Thai green papaya salad and Laos green papaya salad is the liquid component of the recipe along with the topping.

Thai papaya salad, referred to as Som Tam, uses mainly fish sauce as the flavoring condiment and is generally topped with crushed roasted peanut. 

Laos papaya salad, referred to as Tam Mak Hoong, uses fermented crab dip (nam pu) and padaek as flavoring condiments

The classic green papaya salad is loved throughout southeast Asia in various forms, but the two most popular are the Thai and Lao style papaya salad. 

Padaek, sometimes known as padek, or Lao fish sauce or pla-ra in Thailand, is a traditional Lao condiment made from pickled or fermented fish that has been cured. It is thicker and more seasoned than the fish sauce more commonly seen throughout Thailand and Vietnam, often containing chunks of fish. The fermentation takes a long time, giving padaek an aroma similar to cheeses like Époisses.

Unlike other versions of fish sauce in Southeast Asia, padaek is made from freshwater fish, owing to the landlocked nature of the former kingdom of Lan Xang. Padaek is used in many dishes, most notably tam maak hoong, a spicy Lao papaya salad.

Papaya Salad: Laos vs. Thai

Beside the core difference above, there are still ways for you to differentiate Laos and Thai papaya salad.

Thai papaya salad is milder.

Thai papaya salad has a milder flavor than its Lao counterpart because it uses fish sauce as the dressing.

Lao papaya salad has more ingredients in the dressing.

Lao papaya salad has a much flavorful palette due to the incorporation of fermented fish sauce known as padaek and nam pu which is shrimp paste/sauce.

Thai papaya salad uses roasted peanuts and shrimp.

In the Thai variation of this recipe, roasted and crushed peanuts top the dish for another layer of texture. In some other recipes, cooked shrimp, or shrimp jerky is also used.

Both salads are references by different names in each country.

The most common name for Thai papaya salad is Som Tam. The most common name for Lao papaya salad is Tam Mak Hoong.

Thai papaya salad popularized the cuisine around the world.

The middle class in Bangkok, Thailand adapted the original recipe from Laos. They presented it to the world stage and put it on the map with the milder flavors as well as the additional textures of the roasted peanuts. This popularized the dish around the world including the west.

What ingredients do Thai and Lao papaya salad have in common?

The common ingredients between both salads are cherry tomatoes, lime juice, sugar, unripen green papaya, and Thai birds’ eye chilies. 

Now, it is time to get deeper on the two variations.

Thai Green Papaya Salad

Thai green papaya salad is referred to as Som Tam. Som means sour and Tam refers to the pounding sounds from the mortar and pestle that is used to mix up the ingredients. 

With western translations, you may find this dish listed as: som tum, som tam, sum tam, somtum, tam som.

Variations of Som Tam

Thai spicy papaya salad goes by many monikers, especially when you include the multitude of ways that it gets translated into western languages. In general, the various names mention characteristics of the dish or how the dish is made: sour, pounded, papaya salad.

Other names this dish goes by include:

  • Som Tam – This is the mild version of green papaya salad where the dressing is sweet and sour.
  • Som Tam Boo Pla Ra – This is the Lao version that uses fermented fish sauce and crab in the recipe. This is also known as Tam Mak Hoong.
  • Tam Ba – This translates to “jungle” which means that the salad includes a variety of ingredients which includes freshwater snails.
  • Tam Sua – This version includes fermented fish sauce as well as rice noodles.

Laos green papaya salad

Laos style green papaya salad is known as Tam Mak Hoong. Tam means crush and Mak Hoong references the green papaya.

Again, with western translations, you may find this dish in restaurants listed as: tham mak hoong, tam mak hung, tam mak hoong, thum mak huong, tum mak hoong and pretty much any variation of any of those words.

Laos papaya salad shares some of the main ingredients of its Thai counterpart, uses fermented crab dip (nam pu) and fermented fish sauce (padaek).

Variations of Tam Mak Hoong

This dish is known by a lot of different names, especially when you include the multitude of ways that it gets translated into English. In general, the various names mention characteristics of the dish or how the dish is made: sour, pounded, papaya salad.

Other names this dish goes by include:

  • Tum Sum
  • Tum Ma Hoong
  • Tham Mak Huong
  • Som Tum
  • Sum Tuom
  • Tham Mak Hoong

Where did green papaya salad originate from?

Now, we believe you already realize the similarity of the two salads, hence, there comes 1 question: Where did the green papaya salad originated from?

Though, most of us knows about this salad first in Thailand or at Thai restaurants all around the world, green papaya salad actually originated from Laos. Between the 1970s and early 1990s, there were over 200,000 Lao refugees that made their way into Thailand due to the Vietnam War.

As both cultures melded together, this specific dish was adapted by the Thai. The middle class in Bangkok adapted the recipe to remove what was deemed as “low class” ingredients like fermented fish sauces and pastes. Instead of using padaek and nam pu, a substitute of fish sauce was used as well as making the dish slightly sweeter. This lowered the overpowering flavors of padaek and nam pu, which made it more popular for those that had not yet acquired the Lao palette. 

This Bangkok variation was then introduced to the world and added on a global scale by being added on an international menu of things to try while in Thailand.

Which green papaya salad is better: Thai or Lao style?

This is a very tough question. First, we need to bear in mind that these variations are absolutely delicious.

If you have not acquired the Lao palette to appreciate the umami of fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste, I would recommend the Thai style green papaya salad.

If you want a bursting of flavor and the combination of sweet, sour, bitterness and saltiness, Lao style definitely has more depth of flavor that you won’t find in the Thai style.

Adapting and adjusting papaya salad recipe

Making papaya salad requires several main ingredients, but overall, you can adjust the ingredients as you please. Essentially, you can adapt the flavors and intensity to suit your own taste buds. If you want it sweeter, add more sugar. If you want it more spicy, add a few more Thai chilies. If you want a deeper and richer taste, add more padaek. 

There are other variations that include adding shredded carrots that provide a beautiful presentation contrast and sweetened flavor to the dish. You can also add radish, long beans, and eggplants into the dish itself when they are usually just are placed as accompaniments.

Vegetarian and Vegan Adaptation for Papaya Salad

For a vegetarian spicy green papaya salad, substitute the fish sauce with soy sauce. 

The beauty about papaya salad is that it is so easy to make your own and adjust. 

Authentic recipe for Papaya Salad

First, watch the below video to have the general idea of how to make Thai Som Tam.

Similar Ingredients

  • 1 green unripen papaya
  • 15 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 Thai bird eye chiles (If you want it spicier, just add 1 or 2 more)
  • 1 tablespoon of palm sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of MSG (optional)
  • 1/2 of a lime, juiced

Different Ingredients

Laos

  • 1 tablespoon of padaek, fermented fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of nam pu, shrimp paste

These ingredients make the stronger flavor of Laos style.

Thai

  • 1 carrot, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons of filtered fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup of dried shrimp

Accompaniments

  • 1 cup of green long beans, chopped into 1-inch lengths
  • 2 Thai/kermit egg plants, cut into wedges
  • Thai basil, washed
  • Prepared sticky rice
  • Pork crackle rinds, also known as chicharron
  • Cabbage

Directions for making green papaya salad

Prepare the papaya by thoroughly washing the outside.

Peel the papaya with a peeler and ensure you wash the sap off as much as possible.

Next, start making cuts into the peeled papaya at 1/8 inch intervals and use the Julienne Zig Zag blade to shred the papaya flesh (if you don’t have a blade, you can just use a knife to cut the papaya perpendicular to the cuts to create long thin shreds).

When you start seeing the immature seeds of the papaya salad, stop and move to the next part of the papaya and repeat the shredding process. Discard and remove any seeds that may accidentally get into your bowl. Set aside.

Get the mortar and pestle. Add in and pound the garlic, sugar, and Thai chile peppers together. Hint: As you start pounding, use one hand to cover the mortar opening as you pound. Pound carefully so that the Thai chiles don’t go flying (avoiding your face and eyes).

Now, it is time to add the sauce. For Laos style, add shrimp paste and padaek. Try not to spill the padaek because it has a very pungent smell. Next, add the lime juice and pinch of MSG (optional).

If you are making Thai style, just add fish sauce. Try to first pour it into a cup or a spoon so that you can control the amount of fish sauce that you use.

Add the cherry tomatoes and lightly pound, allow the juices from the tomatoes to be released.  Take care not not pound the tomatoes too much because you want to keep slightly keep their shape and be plump and juicy.

Add some dried shrimp if you are making Thai style

Continue pounding, gently.

Lastly, add in the shredded papaya, mix it in the mortar with a spoon.

The result should be a delicious meld of sweet, sour, salty and hot in your mouth!

What is green papaya salad served with?

This resulting salad is a medley of so many flavors and textures, which makes it a delicious snack on especially on a hot summer day!

Serve this additive dish with any of these accompaniments:

  • Khao Niew – Sticky Rice
  • Long green beans
  • Miniature egg plants
  • Pork crackle and rinds
  • Cabbage
  • Grilled pork or chicken
  • Lao minced meat (larb)

FAQs about Green papaya salad

Can green papaya salad induce labor?

One fun myth about green papaya salad is that it can induce labor! This a wives' tale that is shared due to the spicy characteristic of Lao papaya salad.

Is papaya salad safe during pregnancy?

Papaya salad is safe for pregnancy if you eat the Thai version which does not include padaek, but rather fish sauce as the dressing. Lao style papaya salad includes fermented fish sauce, which I would not recommend during pregnancy due to the nature of how it is prepared (fish that sits in a brine and ferments for long periods of time).

What kind of papaya do you use for papaya salad?

In general, papaya is seen as a tender orange tropical fruit. The green papaya that is used in this salad recipe are immature papayas that have not began the ripening process. When these papayas are green, they have a beautiful white flesh that is often tinged green and provides a neutral, yet crunchy flavor that makes them perfect for any type of salad.

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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