Notes of a Papaya Thief


After many years of debate, travel, lost and found-ness, thousands of dollars spent in restaurants across the world, stints at scores of restaurants from busboy to server, prep to line cook, and finally co-owner and chef of a small restaurant in Puerto Rico, I’ve decided to try to write about it all.

This place had the greatest mutton and tortilla sandwiches, but it was 3 hours from anything in any direction. No power or water, just a little old lady with a wood stove.

But where do we begin?

I started cooking at a very young age. I’ve always been fascinated by food… Eating, cooking, watching loved ones in the kitchen prepare simple dishes with fresh ingredients. I am half Navajo, and I’ve always found it funny that I come from a culture that typically makes bland food, but now I probably have the largest collection of spices in Puerto Rico.

Don’t get me wrong, bland isn’t always terrible. I love mutton stew and frybread, or grilled mutton on a homemade tortilla with a roasted anaheim pepper. Those memories are deeply embedded in my nose, on my tongue. My mouth waters just thinking about that simple soup of boiled potatoes, carrots, onion, green chilies and salt with a big chunks of seared mutton that fall apart in your mouth. There’s something about that rich, pungent gamey redolence that filled Grandma’s house. It clung to your clothes for days, and the grease from the stew and frybread made the top of your mouth slimy for hours.

This is home food. This is a good place to start.

Why Papaya Thief?

I have a green papaya salad on my menu, and for the past few years I’ve been taking green papayas right off the trees. I’ve snuck into neighbors’ backyards, been bloodied by barbed wire fences, chased by wild dogs, yelled at by old blind men. The milk from a broken stem of papaya burns like battery acid if it drips on you. When you wipe the sweat off your brow with the back of your juiced-drenched arm, or the sweat off your upper lip with your milky white stained shoulder, your face will itch and burn, and water will only make it worse.

But at 5pm, if you order the papaya salad, you know where it came from, you know that it’s fresh, and that makes me happy.

Green Papaya Salad

1 handful shredded or finely julienned green payapa (seeded & peeled)

2 Tbsp Nuoc Mam (recipe to follow)

2-3 cherry tomatoes, halved

1 large pinch of fresh cilantro leaves

2 large pinches roasted peanuts

Throw all the ingredients into a medium sized mixing bowl and smash well with pestle, a coffee mug, or little soup cup until the peanuts are well crushed and cilantro bruised but not broken. The tomatoes will explode. Use your hands to ball up the salad, give a squeeze to drain the excess dressing (it’s a bit acidic, but I like the spice), then place on a plate and garnish with cilantro.

Alternate recipe: add julienned pickled or raw carrots, bean sprouts as garnish, or a little bit of seasoned crab meat that you’ve rolled in the excess dressing leftover in the bowl.

2 Replies to “Notes of a Papaya Thief”

  1. We ate at La Copa Llena twice when we were visiting Rincon in March. I had the grilled Vietmanese pork tenderloin with shrimp fried rice both times it was so good. Could you post the recipe?


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