I spend most of my time in the country and, generally, I’m pretty happy about that. There’s plenty of room for the dogs to run. I can grow my garden. The area of Pennsylvania where I live is pretty and nice. What it is not is diverse. And that is something I miss about my time living in Brooklyn, New York.
Lucky for me, my work often takes me to the big city, and this week it landed me in Jackson Heights, Queens, where the downsides are no places for the dogs to run and having to buy my vegetables from other people. But the upside (and it’s a huge upside) is the cultural diversity. On a few consecutive blocks along 37th Ave. there are eateries that specialize in Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, Thai, Argentinean, and Afghanistan cuisines. You can snack on a Columbian arepa while sipping on an Indian basil-seed soft drink while standing in line for a Mexican taco. It’s like a real-life Epcot center.
But perhaps even more impressive than the restaurants and street carts are the grocery stores, where ingredients from all over the world are integrated side-by-side throughout the aisles. Familiar produce like cilantro and okra live alongside green papaya and many things I have never seen before. Of course, when I see edible stuffs I don’t know, I buy them.
One new discovery has been gongura, a pretty green-and-red leaf in the hibiscus family that has a lemony flavor and is used in Indian cooking. In the spirit of ethnic culinary fusion I decided to add it to a Thai-style green papaya salad along with a bit of curry powder to round out the pan-cultural spirit of the place. It’s a bright and refreshing take on an already delicious summery dish.
Jackson Heights Papaya Salad
Serves 4 to 6
3 pounds green papaya
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 scallion, thinly sliced
6 gongura leaves, thinly sliced
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon curry powder
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 fresh hot chile, thinly sliced
Peel the papaya, halve and remove the seeds. (Papaya seeds are worth tasting to see if you like them. They have a strong pepperiness to them that some people, like me, find tasty. If you like them, use the seeds instead of black pepper in this salad.) Cut the papaya into thin matchsticks with a slicer or a knife.
Toss the papaya in a bowl with the ginger, scallion, gongura, and cilantro. Stir together the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar to taste, curry, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper or papaya seeds to taste. Serve sprinkled with the hot chile.