Around 12 months ago, I was preparing to host a family Christmas lunch at my brand new, sorta funky, but incredibly tiny apartment. I had never had the family over for Chrissy, and as thus was totally unprepared for what lay ahead. Well, well, well - it was definitely much more of an undertaking than I had at first thought. When I noded up a recipe we had at that lunch sometime after the event - I vowed that I would never go through it again.
My mother phoned last week, and we weren't far into our conversation before it all unraveled. It went something like this;
"I was wondering if we could…"
"Forget it…" I interrupted, "…there is no way you are coming over here again this year."
To her credit she took it pretty well, and as thus, this years gathering will now reside at her place. My rules for Christmas lunch however, remain just the same as last year. There will be no hot turkey roasts, no baked vegetables, no weighty gravy - no misguided culinary homage to the old country. This is the Southern Hemisphere, and of course, it will be unbearably hot at Christmas.
My contribution to the day will be a green mango salad. If you have never sat down to dine on a green mango, you will be in for a pretty magical experience. I have no trouble recalling the first time I tasted one. I was working at a little café with a guy called Somkhit, who was born in northern Thailand. After shopping at the markets one day, he produced half a dozen mangoes - and pretty weird looking ones at that. They were a deep and dark green colour all over, with a slight pinkish blush at one end. They were also disconcertingly hard - only slightly softer than a crisp, ripe apple. Khit, as we affectionately called him, could never have been accused of being overly verbose, and as he prepared my first ever green mango salad, he was characteristically frugal with his words.
"I think you are going to like this."
He picked up a very large, very sharp knife and began whacking away at the mango with alarming speed and what seemed to be total disregard for his safety.
It was only later that I discovered that Thais have a very special, and a very visually impressive method of preparing green mangoes. The fruit needs to be quite finely shredded before proceeding with a recipe. To describe them as half way between a fruit and a vegetable is slightly misleading, but at the same time is clumsily correct. The Thais use them in savoury dishes, but Thai cuisine is so complex that sweet and savoury often overlap, cross paths, and blur the issue to the point of confusion. When I prepare green mangoes, I use a nifty gadget called a mandolin. It cuts the mango into credit card thin slices, and then I will shred these into matchstick size with a chef's knife. Here is why the Thais look so damn cool when they perform the same job.
First they grab a knife - a big one too, often a cleaver. They then hold the mango in their non-dominant hand, at a firm angle away from the body. All hell then breaks loose. The knife is moved back and forth at an alarming pace, cutting right into the mango. The other hand rotates the mango in a slow, but precisely even rate, leaving the fruit with hundreds of deep and evenly spaced cuts. The mango is then spun around, allowing the knife to cleave thin slices away from its edge, each of which fall away into even shreds. It is a truly awesome display, not totally dislike scenes from the highly stylized movie Edward Scissorhands. And it is all over in a matter of seconds. The preparation is virtually identical to that of green papaya, which is used in the sensational Thai salad, som tam. It is a shame I can't do it, and there is no shame in your avoiding this technique as well. My recipe will therefore unashamedly concentrate on the slow and tedious method.
The uber-traditional green mango salad requires that the mango shreds are pounded in a mortar and pestle, along with chillies, fish sauce, lime juice, shallots, coriander and whatever else takes the chef's fancy. However, the chillies will often come to the fore - green mango salad can be a fearsomely spicy dish.
My Christmas version will be a little different. Firstly, the chilli will be toned down a little. I like it hot, but there will also be kids at the dinner table. For festive effect, I am adding king prawns to the salad. The flavour of seafood is sympathetic to the tart, unripe mango; and it will also lift what could simply just be a tasty salad into a centerpiece dish. The most important aspect of my Christmas mango salad however, is substitution. This dish has many possible permutations, and as long as you hold true to the central theme of green mango, herbs and dressing, many fabulously different versions are possible. I will provide a few suggestions on what substitutes to choose, but feel free to get creative and add some of your favourite ingredients. Thats just what the Thais do - and in fact, that is why their cuisine is so distinctive and unique in the first place – judicious appropriation.
A quick word about the mangoes. Anthropod tells us of a green, yet fully ripe variety of mango found in Thailand. As fabulous as her recipe sounds, I have never tried these mangoes, so my recipe will skew towards the tart, sour, complex and pungent flavour of unripe mangoes. There are literally dozens of varieties available, some at different times of the year. A trip to a Thai vegetable grocer will give you the biggest choice, but if that proves to be out of the question, you could ask your local vegetable grocer to order them for you from the markets. Friends with mango trees are also an excellent source.
Green Mango Salad with King Prawns and Peanuts
Peel the mangoes. If you own a mandolin, slice the mango into 2 mm slices until you get right down to the seed. Using a large, sharp knife cut these slices into fine shreds - roughly matchstick in size. Alternatively, you could use the matchstick-shredding attachment on a hand grater, or food processor. If you cover the shredded mango tightly, and stick it in the refrigerator, you can do this step up to 24 hours in advance.
Make the nam jim dressing using the instructions in that node and set aside.
Prepare the seafood. Peel and de-vein the prawns and slice in half lengthways. If using calamari, cuttlefish or octopus, clean out the guts, wash well and slice into enter key sized slices. You can get your fishguy to do this if you are inordinately squeamish. Place the seafood in a bowl, pour over the fish sauce and toss well to combine. Set aside for 15 minutes. BBQ, grill, broil or panfry the seafood until it is just cooked. Err on the side of underdone, as there is nothing worse than overcooked shellfish and cephalopods.
Allow the seafood to cool slightly, then place into a bowl along with the green mango, herbs, nam jim dressing and bean sprouts. Toss well to combine, and then pile ceremoniously onto six plates. Drizzle around any remaining dressing, then scatter with the peanuts, or your other chosen crunchy garnish, which will provide a nice textural counterpoint to the whole dish.
¹ Choose shelled, unsalted peanuts and dry roast in a 180 °C (360 °F) oven, or shallow fry in vegetable oil until lightly golden. Cool and chop into small pieces.
² Peel 6 shallots (the garlic-sized onion, not the slender green onion shoot) and slice into very thin, even rings. Place in a small saucepan and cover with vegetable oil. Place over low - medium heat and let the shallots slowly bubble away in oil. As soon as they turn lightly golden, drain the oil away and pat them dry on kitchen paper.
³ Place raw jasmine rice in a dry fry pan over medium heat. Toss until the rice is toasty and golden. Cool the rice, then grind it almost to a powder (leave some larger chunks) in an electric coffee grinder, spice mill or mortar and pestle.