“Try jackfruit,” Richard Yao offered with a smile when we first met at the Live Oak Gardens wholesale nursery in New Iberia.
She handed me a slice and we discussed unlikely foods that could be grown in subtropical southern Louisiana. Taste, salty bites of homemade olives, and most recently the fresh crunch of green papaya salad.
All of these foods are grown in a garden on Jefferson Island, near New Iberia, right under the wholesale nursery where she and husband Mike Richard Jr. manage the day-to-day operations of the family-run business. Papaya trees dotted Richards’ garden at the edge of Rip Van Winkle Gardens. Richard had already picked out buckets worth sharing and using for salads.
I took off my shoes at the door and stepped into her bustling kitchen. Richard had prepared three dishes for him. Purple sticky rice steamed on the stove, marinated pork in the air fryer, and cheesy garlic bread baked near the oven.
Her cooking has physicality. Several times she grabbed the woven rice basket that lay on top of the steaming pan. Holding the high end of what appeared to be an upside-down hat, she swung it and threw the entire clump of rice into the air, placing it in a basket surrounded by clouds of steam.
Papaya chopped in the air. Since this is a recipe for julienne or julienne, I imagined a cutting board and a grater. I had neither. Richard grabbed the papaya in his fist and struck it with a knife held perpendicular to the oblong fruit, grooving the flesh and shaving it off. The result is a pile of shredded papaya.
“How did you learn that?” I asked in disbelief that she hadn’t cut her hand.
Surprisingly, Richard said he didn’t cook much when he grew up in Thailand. “My mom was cooking three meals a day and it was very hard for her,” she explained.
When she moved to Australia, she began learning the intricacies of Thai cuisine when she found a job at a Thai restaurant. I went to business school because my speaking ability improved. Meanwhile, her sister moved to Southern Louisiana, where Richard came to visit, met her husband, and started her family.
Richards’ school-aged son was my ally in his wary of spices. I planned to add only one. But when she took the peppers out of the freezer, she seemingly realized she had dropped four cold peppers into the mortar. This is a compromise. they were small.
Richard used a mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients together. This traditional clay mortar and wooden pestle is used to make a variety of Tam-style pound him salads (Tam means “to pound” in Thai). Tonight we went mostly local with green papaya, chiles, cherries and tomatoes from Richard’s garden.
They were small, but I tasted the chilli. I was grateful for the deliciousness of the rice, pork, and bread that softened the spiciness of the salad. I also appreciated the sympathetic smile from Richards’ son.
Richard sent one of her papayas home. I recently made my own salad. I also tried the mid-air slash method, but I was not good at it and finished it with a chopping board. Instead of a properly sized mortar and pestle, I mashed the salad with my hands like I was kneading dough. I served salmon marinated in ginger and orange juice (oranges I picked before the recent freeze and ginger Richard gave me a few months ago to plant in my garden). Her 3 of my kids tried it and 2 of her loved it.
green papaya salad
Serves 4-6 people
Recipe by Yao Richard
1 tsp to 1/2 tbsp sweetener (preferably palm or coconut sugar)
1 clove of garlic (peeled)
1-7 chili peppers or dried chili pepper flakes, as desired
3-6 slices of peeled lime
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 to 3/4 cup cherry tomatoes
1 medium green papaya, peeled and shredded (discard seeds)
1. Mix sugar, garlic and chili in a Thai mortar and grind into a paste with a pestle. In place of a mortar and pestle, mince the garlic and chilies together and add the garlic, chilies, and sweetener to a medium-sized bowl.
2. Squeeze the juice of 3-4 limes into a mortar or bowl and add the lime zest. Beat again or use the back of a wooden spoon to mash the mixture.
3. Add fish sauce.
4. Add cherry tomatoes and break gently with a pestle or wooden spoon. Large cherry tomatoes can be chopped to desired size before adding to the mix.
5. Add finely chopped papaya, tap and mix until all ingredients are well combined. If using a bowl, salad can be mashed with clean hands or the bottom of a measuring cup.
6. Sprinkle fried pork skin, khaep mu (also known as cracklin) on top and serve. It goes well with glutinous rice and pork side dishes.