Cooking

Taro Down for What

Make Leah Cohen's extra-crispy take on Vietnamese papaya salad
Leah Cohen's Papaya Salad
Photos: Dave Katz/Tasting Table 

Last winter, Leah Cohen was nearing the end of a multiweek trip through Southeast Asia when the unimaginable happened: She got sick of noodles.

Cohen, the chef and owner of New York's Pig and Khao, was eating her way across Vietnam as research for a forthcoming restaurant, and after weeks on the road, she had hit a noodle wall. "I couldn't eat another bowl," she laughs.

Fortunately, there is a local antidote: a refreshing green papaya and carrot salad that serves to counter some of the more carb-heavy Vietnamese dishes. Papaya salads are par for the course across Southeast Asia, but Cohen discovered her favorite version, which involves the unusual addition of fried taro chips, at a restaurant called Secret Garden in the central Vietnamese city of Hoi An.

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"Taro isn't always thought of as a Vietnamese ingredient, but I was really surprised and impressed when I tasted it," says Cohen. "There are so many amazing textures going on—you get a real crispiness from the taro, the crunch of the raw carrots and papaya, and the nuttiness and a different kind of crunch from the peanuts." Combine those textures with a bouquet of fresh herbs and a dose of savory-sweet nuoc cham (a dipping sauce made of fish sauce, lime juice and sugar) as dressing, and Cohen found herself thoroughly smitten with the simple dish.

Back in New York, she set about recreating the salad (see the recipe), making a few tweaks along the way. Gone was the grilled squid with which the salad was topped in Hoi An, swapped, instead, for chicken marinated in a Thai-inspired blend of coconut milk, garlic and cilantro root. And, instead of a straightforward nuoc cham, Cohen made a sort of Southeast Asian vinaigrette, whisking house-made scallion oil in with the traditional sauce.

The success of this summery dish lies in building layers of texture, so once all ingredients are prepped, thoroughly toss everything, except the fried taro and shallots, with dressing. Then add half of the taro and give it a quick toss, so the tuber retains its crunch, and finish with the remaining taro and crispy shallots on top. The finished product is cool and crisp, salty and sweet, light and filling all at once—the flavor of summer in a single bowl.

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