Som tam (or som tum or somtam as it is sometimes transliterated) is the quintessential salad you’ll find all over Thailand. Everyone eats it.
In fact, it reaches almost epic importance in the essence of life for quite a lot of Thais, with us becoming moody and feeling like part of our life is missing if we cannot eat it for any significant period of time – meaning a few days.
There are a gazillion variations of this dish which range from the basic green papaya salad to which all manner of things can be added such as shrimp, crab and other meats, and so on.
A really wonderful variation is a fruit-based salad made with similar ingredients for the sauce which gives a tang to the fruit that you would never experience in the West.
But that recipe is for a later article. Today we will be making the basic ‘som tam thai' which is made from unripened green papaya which is shredded, often with a little carrot, chilies, tomatoes, a little garlic, peanuts, and optionally dried shrimp, shrimp paste and fish sauce.
If you want a vegetarian version you simply skip the dried shrimp and replace the fish sauce with vegetarian soy sauce. The flavor will be a little different but basically very close.
The key to this recipe is to use fresh ingredients, ensuring the papaya is nicely green and firm and has not yet begun to ripen when it becomes sweeter, the skin starts to turn yellow with beautiful peachy orange-colored flesh inside instead of the slightly off white color we want for this salad.
The tomatoes should preferably be red and just not quite ripe – you don't want them mushy and the peanuts should be roasted and crunchy not old and soggy as they sometimes go.
As with most Thai food, the object of the exercise is to let the fresh ingredients do their taste magic and augment that with a balance of spice from the chilies, salt from the fish sauce (or vegetarian soy sauce if using that) and a hint of sour from the tamarind and sugar from a little palm sugar.
The result should be a mix of taste to set off all your taste buds.
In fact, as adults, we have 2 – 4,000 taste buds, each of which can sense the basic taste categories of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory. They sit concentrated on our tongue and also in other places of our mouth, throat and nasal passages. Each one can sense all of the five tastes but some are more sensitive to some tastes more than others.
Anyway, the point is that a lot of Thai food aims to fire off all taste sensations for a sort of taste explosion with a balance of salty, sour, sweet, savory and often bitter and fiery thrown in for good measure.
It is essential that you taste as you go, especially with ingredients with very strong tastes or spiciness such as fish sauce and shrimp paste which is very salty and chilies which are often very spicy.
Do the taste test as you go to ensure your food matches the saltiness you and your guests might like and a spice level that will suit all.
You can adjust the number of chilies used easily during preparation and can even spot the fiery little pieces in the dish to avoid eating them. But if you overdo the chilies no matter how many you pull to one side the dish will still be overpoweringly spicy.
So my suggestion is to start with one or maybe two until you know the level of spice you prefer. The more spicy food you eat, the more chili you will be able to tolerate.
In fact, if you eat spicy food often you will often come to the conclusion that any food that does not have some spice in is rather tasteless (Thais will say the food is just which means it has no taste).
If you visit Thailand you will see and smell people eating Som Tam which smells …. Well just smelly. That is likely Som Tam Poo Bala – or fermented crab papaya salad.
Do not let that experience put you off trying this green papaya salad which has a wonderful taste and is not smelly at all – just give fermented crab a wide berth if you don’t like the smell.
The key to this salad is the crushing of the ingredients in preparation. We call this pok pok because of the sound the mortar and pestle make while lightly crushing and mixing ingriedents together. Imaginative right?
You will want to find yourself a mortar and pestle that is not too heavy – earthenware mortars and wooden pestles are the common and inexpensive solution which you will find in every Thai kitchen.
The heavier granite or stone mortar and pestles are also used but not for this dish. These heavier versions are used for crushing and grinding spices together and for preparing Thai pastes that are used in a large number of Thai dishes.
Thai pastes need to be fine and the heavy mortar and pestle are perfect to give a helping hand to achieve this consistency.
The lighter wooden pestle and earthenware mortar is perfect to lightly crush and mix the ingredients needed for the essential saucy and spicy concoction that flavors the shredded papaya.
Let’s get to the recipe to make this iconic dish.
Follow along with my video which you will see in the recipe below or print out the recipe if you prefer.
Do let me know what you think of the recipe in the comments below, please!
Links in the recipe for slightly unusual ingredients take you to the Amazon store where you can get a better look at the specific ingredient and ensure you get the right thing from your local Asian store – or you can buy online of course.
Links to specific products mentioned in this recipe follow. Use them to get a closer look at the product or even to buy online if your local Asian store does not have them.
Som Tam Thai Recipe - Thai Papaya Salad
- 1 1/2 cup Shredded papaya
- A little Shredded carrot To make a nice color combination for serving
- 4 cloves Thai garlic Substitute 2 cloves normal garlic
- 3 Thai chili Substitute 3 dried chili
- 1 Small Tomato Cut into small pieces
- 1 tbsp Dried shrimp More or Less to your taste (omit for vegan)
- 1 tbsp Palm sugar
- 2 1/2 tbsp Fish sauce Substitute with Soy Sauce for Vegan
- 2 1/2 tbsp Vegan Fish Sauce Use in place of regular fish sauce for vegetarian
- 1 tsp Tamarind paste Make by adding a little water to tamarind pulp
- 1 tbsp Lime juice
- 1 tbsp Roasted peanuts
- 1 or 2 Long green beans Cut into 2-inch pieces
- Fresh vegetables to eat with Som Tum Thai Lettuce, tomato, raw salad cabbage, spring onions, a slice of lime, extra peanuts & diced chili are all good
- Wash vegetables, papaya, carrot and set aside. Peel the papaya skin with a potato peeler and scrape or peel the outer carrot skin and cut off the ends.
- Shred the peeled papaya and carrot using a shredding tool to the given quantity and set aside.
- Cut off the ends of the long green beans and cut the main bean into 2-inch strips and set aside.
- Pound the chili and garlic in an earthenware mortar first, then add most of the long green beans. Just crush them roughly to release the flavor and fragrance. You are not out to pulverize!.
- Be sure to use minimal chili if you are not used to spicy food - increase once you feel comfortable to do so. Even one chili may be enough for a person who has never really eaten spicy food.
- Then season with palm sugar, fish sauce (or soy sauce for vegetarians), tamarind juice, lime juice and mix together still in the earthenware mortar.
- Add the tomato, remaining long green beans, shredded papaya and carrot and gently mix them together with the pestle and a spoon.
- TASTE IT. Adjust the taste by adding more chili if you want more spice, more sugar for sweetness, more tamarind and/or lime juice for fruity sourness and fish sauce for salt. If using soy sauce you may want to add finely ground salt rather than too much liquid as soy sauce is much less salty than fish sauce.
- Using an earthenware or wood mortar for Thai papaya salad is best because the ingredients do not get so crushed.
- Do not crush papaya to long because papaya won't be fresh and crispy - you'll want to serve it immediately.
- When you add the seasonings and especially fish sauce, do not add too much at first. Taste and adjust gradually in small increments - you can't take salt out!
- To keep papaya crispy and fresh longer, after shredding, soak into freezing cold water or add ice and refrigerate while doing the pok pok (Thai phrase for pounding with the mortar and pestle)
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