Comfort Foods: Tum Mak Hoong is a spicy green papaya salad typically eaten with family

American University sophomore Cheyanne Cabang finds comfort in her Laotian heritage

Comfort Foods: Tum Mak Hoong is a spicy green papaya salad typically eaten with family

Tum mak hoong (green papaya salad) with fried chicken.

Comfort foods is a Life section series highlighting AU students and the food that reminds them of home and heritage.

Even when we are thousands of miles away from family members and loved ones, food can bridge this insurmountable gap. Culture is rooted in the food we eat; one dish can transport us back home.

American University sophomore, Cheyanne Cabang, feels this familial connection through tum mak hoong.

Tum mak hoong, a papaya salad originally from Laos, is made up of shredded green papaya, spices, chili pepper flakes and Thai soy sauce. As a child, Cabang’s grandma used to make the dish every single day in their Hawai’i home.

“Every time I think of papaya salad, I just imagine my grandma squatting on the floor with her mortar and pestle making the salad,” Cabang said. “That’s what I would come home to every single day.”

Since tum mak hoong is typically eaten as an appetizer, it is the first dish that the Cabang family traditionally would eat for dinner. Cabang was raised in a large family, which meant that there were usually five to 10 family members around the table. Papaya salad reminds her of this togetherness, even when she is away from her loved ones.

“When I get homesick, I think of papaya salad, and it’s the same for my other family members,” Cabang said. “[My dad and I] talk on the phone every day, and he always tells me he misses papaya salad, and that’s how we bond.”

Although Cabang said she enjoys eating the dish now, papaya salad has not always been her favorite. However, over time, she began to develop a taste for the dish.

“When I was small, I couldn’t handle it. I hated it so much,” Cabang said. “It’s super spicy and [requires] an acquired taste just because of how spicy it is.”

Now, as a college student far from home, Cabang orders papaya salad at various Thai and Lao restaurants in D.C. such as Thip Kao and PADAEK. She said that, although its taste is never exactly like her grandma’s homemade recipe, it is still a connection to her family and heritage.

“In college — pre-COVID times — [I had] to leave home and get accustomed to a new type of cooking,” Cabang said. “[Tum mak hoong] reminds me of home being 5,000 miles away.”

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