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Lao Papaya Salad Recipe (Thum Mak Hoong)

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Lao papaya salad recipe, also known as thum mak hoong, is the real deal, guys. It’s packed with the authentic flavors you’d find in Luang Prabang and Isan. Crunchy shreds of crisp papaya tossed in the best dressing ever with fermented fish sauce and chilies.

Overhead view of a Lao papaya salad served in a bamboo basket, set against a patterned fabric, with fresh herbs and vegetables on the side.

This authentic Lao salad recipe is funky, spicy, and so quick and easy!

It’s delicious on its own, but even better with Thai sticky rice and Thai fried chicken.

What is Lao papaya salad (thum mak hoong)

Lao papaya salad, also known as thum mak hoong, is a traditional Laotian dish featuring shredded green papaya, mixed with a dressing of chili, garlic, lime, shrimp paste, and fermented fish sauce. Sometimes made with black crab paste, it’s a staple in Luang Prabang and Isan.


Fermented fish sauce is the secret ingredient that makes Lao dishes uniquely delicious, just like jeow mak muang and jeow mak keua.

Close-up of Lao papaya salad, or thum mak hoong, with green papaya, tomatoes, and chili peppers.

Thai vs Lao papaya salad

There are some similarities and differences between Lao and Thai papaya salad, tum mak hoong and som tam (som tum). Both come with the crunch of green papaya shreds, but the difference lies in their ingredients and flavors.

When you travel through different regions in Thailand, or cross the border to Laos, the flavors and spices become distinct in pungency, sweetness, and spice.

Mekong River, the bridge between Thailand and Laos.
Mekong River, the bridge between Thailand (Mukdahan) and Laos.

Thum mak hoong is a Lao papaya salad full of spicy, sour, and umami flavors. Typically, it uses fermented fish sauce (Pladaek in Lao and Isan language), and often includes salted whole crab or pickled crab, crab paste, and shrimp paste. The Lao papaya salad sauce is quite dark, thanks to the generous use of fermented fish sauce (pladaek) and shrimp paste.

Som tum Thai (Thai papaya salad) is loved by everyone. It’s sweeter, thanks to the addition of palm sugar, and less spicy, perfect for those who are new to Thai cuisine. It often includes crushed peanuts and sometimes dried shrimp.

Close-up image of som tum Thai, featuring shredded papaya, sliced tomatoes, lime, and peanuts, presented on a banana leaf.
Som tum Thai, a classic Thai papaya salad beloved in Bangkok and all across Thailand.

Som tam pla ra is a staple papaya salad in Isan cuisine, the Northeastern region of Thailand. Fermented fish sauce adds a unique depth and funkiness, quite similar to original Lao green papaya salad. When I traveled to Laos, I found that the papaya salad there was saltier than in Isan – it had even more fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste than what I’m used to.

Tam sua is another staple in Northeastern Thailand, made with rice vermicelli noodles. It’s a great blend of textures, with the noodles adding a delicious twist to the traditional papaya salad. Slippery, crunchy, and chewy all rolled into one salad. Laos has its own version with vermicelli noodles, named thum khao poon.

Close-up of twirled rice vermicelli noodles on a fork over a plate of thum khao poon salad, highlighting the dish's fresh tomatoes and long beans, with traditional Lao decor in the background.
Lao thum khao poon salad with rice vermicelli as a key ingredient.

More variations of Thai papaya salads are with rice noodles and with yard long beans (som tum tua).

History of Lao papaya salad

Lao papaya salad is believed to have originated in rural communities of Laos, where fresh ingredients and natural resources are still used on a daily basis, just like in Isan.

The papaya salad was and still is a simple way for locals to combine the crisp, unripe papaya in their garden with a mix of herbs, spices, and beloved fermented fish sauce. In Isan, papaya salad is a cheap meal for locals to enjoy on a daily basis, and there are many street food stalls at the side of the road offering their version.

Freshly prepared Lao papaya salad in a woven basket, showcasing shredded green papaya, cherry tomatoes, long beans, and chili, garnished with lime and dill.

Over time, Laos papaya salad found its way to its neighboring countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Each country came up with unique versions and different ingredients.

Today, the salad has spread its way far beyond Laos and Thailand, with many variations existing all around the globe.

Close-up of a traditional Thai clay mortar and wooden pestle on a wooden background.
A clay mortar and wooden pestle are the traditional tools for making Lao papaya salad.

But no matter what variation thum mak hoong takes on, it should always be made with a traditional clay mortar and wooden pestle.

What kind of papaya for salad

Choosing the perfect papaya for your salad is key. Aim for an unripe green papaya that feels firm and weighty, with smooth skin, free from any soft areas or signs of orange spots. For the freshest and highest quality, Asian markets or Asian grocery stores are your go-to source for these fruits.

Whole green papaya on a bamboo table.

Ripe papayas are not suited for making papaya salad. These orange fruits are soft and sweet, unlike the crunchy texture of the unripe papaya.

How to shred green papaya

For detailed instructions, see my in-depth guide on how to shred papaya.

Traditional method: Start by peeling half the papaya with a vegetable peeler, holding the skin side firmly. Flip and peel the other half. Make shallow chops along the fruit while rotating it, then slice off the chopped layers to create thin shreds.

Step-by-step images showing the process of shredding a green papaya: 1. Peeling the skin with a julienne peeler, 2. Slicing it open with a knife, 3. Creating thin, crisp strips.

Vegetable peeler method: Peel the entire papaya with a vegetable peeler, or as much as you’re planning to use. Switch to a julienne peeler, such as a Kiwi peeler, to shred the papaya into uniform strips easily.

Leftover papaya can be used in my kaeng som recipe, a traditional Southern Thai curry.

Lao papaya salad Ingredients

Ingredients can be sourced at Asian grocery stores and Asian markets.
The exact measurements are in the recipe card at the end of this post.


Ingredients for Lao papaya salad labeled: garlic, chilies, fish sauce, tamarind paste, palm sugar, MSG, fermented fish sauce, shrimp paste, lime, and tomatoes.
  • Green papaya – For papaya salad, you need an unripe papaya that’s crisp and fresh. It’s shredded into thin strips, which perfectly absorbs the salad dressing. Papaya is a healthy choice as it offers many health benefits, it contains high levels of antioxidants like vitamin A and vitamin E.
  • Yard long beans – Yard long beans, snake beans, or green beans add a crunchy texture and refreshing note. The beans are chopped into bite-sized pieces and lightly bruised with the pestle so they can absorb the papaya dressing to the fullest. They’re full of fiber and nutrients, making them a healthy addition that goes well with the spicy and sour flavors of this Laotian dish.
  • Small tomatoes – Small tomatoes like cherry tomatoes add a natural sweetness to the salad. They’re refreshing, full of moisture, and add a slight tang that enhances the overall flavors.
  • Fresh chili peppers – I typically use Thai chilies like bird’s eye chilies or Thai Jinda chilies. Bird’s eye chilies are incredibly spicy and Jinda chilies are medium to hot. Feel free to adjust the amount of chilies to taste and remove the seeds if you’re not used to eating spicy food.
  • Dried chilies – Dried chilies add a smoky depth, different from the heat of fresh chilies. Dried chilies tend to be even spicier and add a complex flavor.
  • Garlic – A staple in papaya salads, garlic cloves add pungent notes and aroma. Crushed with the mortar and pestle, its earthy and slightly spicy notes are released to the fullest.
  • Lime – Please use fresh lime juice, not the bottled stuff. Lime juice brings a zesty brightness that cuts through the savory, pungent, and sweet notes. It balances out the Lao papaya salad dressing with its acidity and tangy flavor profile.
  • Fermented fish sauce – A key ingredient in Northeastern Thai and Lao cuisine, made by fermenting fish with salt and allowing it to break down over time, resulting in a pungent, savory liquid. This sauce is a must for authentic Lao food, adding umami and salty notes.
  • Tamarind paste – Tamarind paste adds a sour-sweet flavor profile that’s typical to thum mak hoong. It’s made from the pulp of tamarind fruit and balances out the heat of the chilies and saltiness of the fish sauce. It’s a staple in many Southeast Asian salads.
  • Shrimp paste – Shrimp paste (or kapi) is made of salted fermented shrimp. It adds a funky umami richness to the dressing that’s simply irreplacable. You can use leftover shrimp paste in nam prik kapi, a shrimp paste chili dip.
  • Palm sugar – Palm sugar is a natural sweetener, offering a caramel-like flavor profile that sets it apart from white sugar and brown sugar. It’s essential for rounding out the flavors of the other ingredients, tempering the heat of the chilies and acidity of the lime.
  • Fish sauce – Fish sauce, a staple in Lao cooking, is made from fermentating fish with salt. It’s a versatile condiment that brings salty, savory, and umami to Lao dishes.
  • MSG – MSG is a popular flavor enhancer in Southeast Asian cuisine, often used in small amount to boost the umami and enhance the overall flavors. It deepens the flavor of papaya salad without overpowering the spicy, tangy, and spicy notes.

All ingredients are available at Asian grocery stores or Asian markets. You can read more about the importance of these ingredients in my post of essential Thai pantry staples for home cooks.

How to make papaya salad Lao style

Pounded garlic and chilies in clay mortar.

Step 1: Pound garlic and chilies with a mortar and pestle.

Pounded herbs and spices in clay mortar.

Step 2: Pound in the shrimp paste, palm sugar, and MSG.

Lao papaya salad dressing in clay mortar.

Step 3: Mix in the dressing sauces: fish sauce, fermented fish sauce, lime juice, and tamarind paste.

Green papaya shreds with salad dressing and chilies in mortar.

Step 4: Toss in sliced yard-long beans and shredded green papaya. Pound to mix and lightly bruise the beans.

Lao papaya salad ready in clay mortar.

Step 5: Lastly, add sliced tomatoes and mix everything one last time. Serve immediately with sticky rice.

Essential tools (mortar and pestle)

A Thai mortar and pestle is essential for whipping up traditional Lao papaya salads. They coax out the natural flavors and aromas of the ingredients.

A clay mortar allows the ingredients to blend without squashing them, keeping every ingredient between bruised and bursting. The wooden pestle is perfect for blending the spicy, sour, sweet, pungent, funky, and savory dressing with just the right amount of pressure.

You’ll also need:

  • Vegetable peeler and Kiwi peeler or sharp knife
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Serving platter

By the way, if you have a mortar and pestle, you’ll love my collection of mortar and pestle recipes including Thai corn salad, nam prik ong, and nam prik kapi.

Recipe tips and tricks

Bruise, don’t crush: Don’t over-pound your thum mak hoong salad. This will turn your papaya salad mushy, and the ingredients like green beans will become soggy.

Balance the flavors: Thai and Lao cuisine is all about creating a balance of flavors. Aim for a balance of spicy, sweet, sour, and savory. Taste-test before serving and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Papaya shreds: If you’re comfortable, go for the traditional knife-cut method when shredding your papaya. This results in shredded papaya of all textures, not uniform ones like the kiwi peeler method.

Ice bath: You can add your papaya shreds to an ice bath to give it more crunch and keep it crunchy if you’re shredding in advance.

tum mak hoong serving ideas

Serve your Lao papaya salad with a side of fresh vegetables like long beans, shredded carrots, Thai eggplants, lettuce, and carrots. Feel free to garnish with chopped roasted peanuts.

Thai sticky rice is a staple in Laos, often enjoyed with Lao papaya salad. If you don’t have glutinous rice, you can simply use steamed jasmine rice. Pair it with grilled meats like grilled chicken, Thai chicken wings, moo yang (Thai grilled pork), or these Thai chicken satay with peanut sauce.

Some classic Thai dishes that are also Lao staples are raw beef salad (raw larb), ground beef larb, and nam tok moo.

Storing tips

The papaya shreds soak up the Laos papaya salad juice over time and can become soggy. However, you can store your salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator to keep it fresh for up to one day.

Frequently asked questions

Can I make papaya salad ahead of time?

Papaya salad does not keep well, as the papaya shreds soak up the dressing over time. You can shred the papaya in advance and combine the dressing ingredients, and simply pound the salad when you’re ready to serve.

Where to buy fermented fish sauce?

Fermented fish sauce can be sourced at Asian markets or at Asian grocery stores. Alternatively, you can order it online at specialty stores or Amazon.

Can I do if my salad is too spicy?

If the flavors are too spicy, try adding a bit more sugar or some more papaya shreds.

Can you eat papaya salad while pregnant?

When it comes to eating papaya salad during pregnancy, it’s generally safe, but it’s crucial to ensure the ingredients are fresh and properly prepared. In Thailand, elders often advise against consuming too much spice and fish sauce during pregnancy.

Where is papaya salad from?

Papaya salad is believed to have originated in Laos before it found its way to Thailand through the border of Isan, Northeastern Thailand.

How long can you keep papaya salad in the fridge?

When stored correctly in an airtight container, your papaya salad will stay fresh and crunchy for up to a day. Any longer and the papaya shreds turn soggy.

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Lao Papaya Salad Recipe (Thum Mak Hoong)

Traditional Lao papaya salad in a rustic serving basket, also known as thum mak hoong, with a side of fresh vegetables.
This Lao papaya salad recipe for thum mak hoong is quick, easy, and foolproof! Serve with sticky rice and a side of grilled meats.
Praew
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Cuisine Lao
Course Salad
Serving Size 2 people

Ingredients

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 dried chilies add to taste
  • 2 chilies add to taste
  • 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
  • 1/2 tablespoon palm sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon MSG
  • 1/2 lime
  • 1.5 tablespoon tamarind paste
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2.5 tablespoons fermented fish sauce
  • 7 ounces green papaya shredded
  • 0.7 ounces yard long beans
  • 4 small tomatoes

Instructions

  • Pound garlic and chilies with a mortar and pestle.
  • Pound in the shrimp paste, palm sugar, and MSG.
  • Mix in the dressing sauces: fish sauce, fermented fish sauce, lime juice, and tamarind paste.
  • Toss in sliced yard-long beans and shredded green papaya. Pound to mix and lightly bruise the beans.
  • Lastly, add sliced tomatoes and mix everything one last time. Serve immediately with sticky rice.

Notes

  • Use the nutrition card in this recipe as a guideline.
  • You need a mortar and pestle to make this recipe.
  • Taste-test and aim for a balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.

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