Plea sach ko (khmer beef tartar) and bok lahong (khmer green papaya salad), were my dad’s favourite dishes. Plea sach ko is a Cambodian dish which consists of lime-cured beef and prahok tossed with fresh herbs, shallots, finely shaved radish and sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts. It is a very popular main dish which can be served hot or cold. Bok lahong is a dish of Laos origin that is served at many food stalls throughout southeast Asia, and is especially popular in Thailand and Cambodia. This dish combines the five main tastes of southeast Asian cuisine -sourness from lime or tamarind, spiciness from bird-eye chilli pepper, savoury-saltiness from salt and fish sauce, and a tiny hint of sweetness usually from palm sugar. The ingredients are mixed together and pounded using a mortar and pestle to infuse all the flavours, hence the name “Bok Lahong” which literally translates to “pounded papaya”.
There are many variations of Cambodian salads that my dad made, but this one, where he joined plea sach ko and bok lahong, is one of my favourites, as it is such a wonderfully delicious Cambodian dish especially served cold in the summer. He loves cooking so he’s always experimenting with a variety of vegetables, and every time we have it, the taste is similar but different; a balanced flavour of sweet, salty, and sour, however, the combination of vegetable used makes it uniquely different each and every time. I love how the green papaya, and bell peppers gives a nice crunchy contrast to the juicy tender, medium rare beef. There are so many variations of vegetables that taste delicious fresh, so please do experiment and use this recipe as a guideline.
This spicy green papaya salad with beef tastes great hot as a main meal with rice, but even better cold, or eaten as an appetizer on a hot summer day with cold vermicelli noodle. Who am I to stop anyone from experimenting with food. I mean, that’s the fun part.
Cambodian Spicy Papaya Beef Salad
- 8 oz steak
- 1/2 unripe papaya peeled and shredded
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- 2 shallots
- 1 tablespoon soysauce
- black pepper
- 2 tbsp salted crab juice only
- 1 tsp palm sugar
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 tbsp lime juice
- 5 garlic cloves chopped
- 1 piece pahok
- 1 piece lemongrass stalk
- 1 tablespoon hot water
- 2 bird eye chilli more depending on preference
- Marinate the steak with 1 tbsp of soy sauce and black pepper, set it aside for 15 minutes or longer.
- Heat a gas or charcoal grill, grilling pan or in my case, a cast iron grill over high heat until very hot. Lower to medium-low heat and grill to desired doneness, 5-6 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer to a bowl and let rest for at least 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, let's make the sauce. Cut the lemongrass stalk into thin slices. Pile the sliced lemongrass together and place a piece of pahok on it. Chop the pahok and lemongrass together. I like pahok in my recipe because it gives it that umami taste without using msg. I usually only use 1 small piece of pahok but if you prefer more, you can put more depending on your preference. Transfer it into a small bowl. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients: salted crab juice, palm sugar, fish sauce, lime, chopped garlic, bird eye chilies and hot water, mix it well.
- Place the papaya into a mortar, add half of the sauce to the papaya and pound a few times just to soften the papaya. Use a spatula to turn the papaya and sauce mixture a few time in between the pounding in order to really mix the sauce in well. Scrap the papaya and sauce from the mortar and place it into a large mixing bowl. Set it aside for now.
- Trim away any excess fat from the steak and thinly slice across the grain. Pour the accumulated juices from the steak and the sliced steak into the papaya mixture. Add the remaining half of the sauce, red bell peppers, yellow bell peppers and shallot. Toss to combine. Taste it and add more salt, sugar or bird eye chilies to match your preference. Serve with rice, fresh basil and cilantro.
For a more robust, toasty flavour and crunchy texture (my preference): Take 1 cup of sticky rice (unwashed) and place it in a preheated pan of medium heat. Dry roast it, stirring continuously until browned. At first, the rice may look like it's not cooking, but after 10 minutes or so, a toasty fragrant similar to the scent of popcorn will permeate the air, and the sticky rice should turn a golden-yellow. I usually fry the sticky rice for about 15 minutes. After it's done, and looking a lot like wheat, set it aside to cool for a couple of minutes. Once it cools down a bit, pound it in your mortar and pestle or grind it in your food processor until it turns into coarse powder with no big grain. However, don't make it too fine or you miss out on the crunchy texture. Once this toasted rice powder is done, take 1 tbsp of it and mix it into 1 serving of the papaya salad, and store the rest of the toasted rice powder into a jar. It should keep for 1 week. Don't mix the whole toasted rice powder into your whole papaya beef salad. It honestly tastes better freshly added. It may be more work, but it will give the salad a nice crunchy texture and toasty taste. Well worth the extra effort.
If you like to experiment, here's some other ingredients you could add in or substitute, whatever: thinly sliced kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced and chopped galangal, long beans, radish, tomatoes, cucumbers...seriously, the list can go on. So off you go and play with your food 🙂