How Green is my Lunch?

In the 80s I was living in London, pursuing a corporate career with an American telecommunications giant. It was the era of the business lunch. Three or four course meals in darkly panelled dining rooms with silver service, obsequious waiters, smarming sommeliers, and alcohol in abundance. Despite generous expense accounts and lunching in some of London’s best restaurants, the food consumed was always secondary to the amount of alcohol imbibed. Lunch started with a gin and tonic – a British tradition that had less to do with stimulating the palate as an ‘aperitif, but more to do with relaxing the client into a compliant mood. White wine with the fish course, red wine with the second and, if all was going well, liqueurs, Irish Coffee or flaming sambucas to accompany the coffee with a cigar – Havanan of course. Three hours later, you returned to the office numbed in a haze of alcohol.

I quickly learnt the rules of the game: never finish any glass put in front of you; be careful what dishes you chose – it’s difficult to maintain a polished and professional exterior with spaghetti sauce or even oyster juice running down your front – and watch your table manners. Americans may laugh at how the British hold their forks and arrange the cutlery, but have they ever watched themselves in a mirror, stabbing at the food with a fork, held like a dagger, and then continuing to talk with their mouths full? Nanna would have been horrified.

As we moved into the 90s, the business lunch became less of an obstacle course, with less alcohol, if any. The food also became lighter and healthier. Despite all this, there were  times when my food judgement was questionable. It still makes me shudder to think about them.

Whilst running my own consultancy, I was taken out to lunch by a female CEO to thank me for the completion of an important assignment. We went to a small busy restaurant near her office in Clerkenwell Green. Despite following her lead and choosing water over wine, the rules were forgotten when I saw  Spider Crab on the menu. It was a dish that I associated with my childhood in Cornwall and had never seen on a restaurant menu before.

I vividly remember the way fisherman in Portloe harbour used to toss the ‘worthless’ spider crabs over the side of their boats and how we children used to pick them up and take them home for tea. They are at best a fiddly meal, but although this one was cracked, it was served covered in a thick, spicy red sauce. It was a very tasty dish, but one that required napkins tucked into the collar, bowls of lemon water for washing fingers and 10 long legs to be poked out and sucked. I can’t imagine it was a pretty sight watching me eat, but as the client was paying, I felt I had to look like I was enjoying it. My shirt certainly did.

I eventually found a safer place to take clients for lunch in London’s West End. It was an Asian fusion restaurant hidden away in a basement just off St James. It was never that busy, which probably explains whilst it’s no longer there, but I visited regularly, always ordering the same dish, green mango and papaya salad decorated with a dried crispy shrimp and crunchy nut topping.

It’s taken quite a while for me to recreate this cool, yet spicy salad. One of the difficulties has been finding the requisite fruit in a green and unripened state. The Caribbean stall holders in my local market looked at me with derision when I felt their fruits and discarded them as too ripe.

Not Green enough
Green papaya and mango salad with brown shrimp

250g green and hard papaya
250g green and hard mango
A large handful of mint, coriander leaves, and Thai basil if you can find it
150g of cooked brown shrimp
1 shallot, thinly sliced
20g dried shrimp, hydrated in hot water – Asian supermarket or Amazon will stock
2 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped in a spice grinder and then bashed a bit to release juices
30 ml sesame oil mixed with 30ml coconut oil
2 tbsp salted peanuts – if they are jumbo ones, break them down a bit.

For the dressing

4 tbs   lime juice
3 tbsp muscovado sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp red chilli, chopped (adjust to taste – I added 2tsp)

Method

Peel the green papaya, cut in half and discard seeds. Do the same with the mango, discarding the stone. Shred finely. You can do this with a Mandolin, but as I’m allergic to all things sharp, I use a food processor. Place in a bowl of ice water, leave in the fridge until ready to serve.

Rinse the dried shrimp, drain off the excess water and pat down with paper towels. Mix the lemongrass into the shrimp and leave aside.

Prepare the dressing by mixing the sugar in lime juice until dissolved. Add the fish sauce, garlic and chili, taste and adjust to your liking.

In a small, deep frying or saucepan on high heat, add oil and fry the shallots for 15 seconds or until brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen towel to drain the fat. In the same pan, fry the lemongrass-coated dried shrimp for up to 10 seconds or until the shrimp has crisped. Be careful as it will splutter. Remove onto the kitchen towel and finally, cook the brown shrimp for no more than 10 seconds. Drain on kitchen towel.

Assemble the salad in individual bowls. First put in a layer of crisp pieces of cos or romaine lettuce. Drain the papaya and mango well, and blot well on paper towels. Toss the fruit with the mint and coriander, then mix in half the dressing. Place large spoonfuls of the mixture on the lettuce and then top with the brown shrimp. Sprinkle over the shallots, dried shrimp, and peanuts. Sprinkle over with the rest of the dressing just before serving.

This is a delicate, fresh, and tangy salad packed with herbs and not difficult to make if you prepare everything in advance. It should be crunchy with lots of texture.

As the photo will show, I don’t think my papaya was green enough as the centre had a faint blush of pink. It should be a white tinged with green. Next time, I will search out an Asian vegetable market for a properly unripened fruit.

In this hot weather, I found it enough to be served as a salad on its own. But for hungrier folks, it can be served as a side, without the lettuce layer, and with grilled or barbecued chicken. In fact, chicken saté would be perfect. Now, where’s my recipe for that?

A spicy crunchy salad

 

 

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