What? Never heard of it? Well, if it’s your first time to Thailand, you’re forgiven. But now take note, as you’re unlikely to find a Thai restaurant that doesn’t serve its own version of this tangy, crispy and moreish salad. It is made from raw, grated papaya mixed with small tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, dried shrimp, chilli and garlic, and seasoned with palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. Voila – you have som tam! Or at least one version of it.
The dish is often served with fresh local vegetables on the side to ease the effect of the chilli, such as long beans, sliced cabbage or cucumber. And to make the meal complete, it goes well with sticky rice. Marinated charcoal-grilled chicken, or maybe some grilled marinated catfish are also popular accompaniments to a satisfying meal.
This green papaya salad is particularly popular in in the northeast of Thailand, in Issan, where it originated. The dish was made without any palm sugar as food from Issan was known for its strong spicy flavours, not for sweetness, combining preserved crab, pla ra (fermented fish), tamarind juice, beans, and salt. It wasn’t until the dish gained popularity and spread to Bangkok that sugar, along with other ingredients, were added, as many people from Issan started tomove to the capital city for work.
Since then, the dish has evolved into different versions, and almost every Thai has their opinion on what makes the best som tam, often ordering it tailored to their tastes. Some like it sweeter, others saltier, and yet others prefer it more sour. But it’s the balancing of these three flavours, along with the freshness of the ingredients that give the dish the powerful and rather addictive punch that it’s famed for.
Most Thais don’t consider it to be a fancy restaurant dish, but rather buy it from a local vendor. Away from the tourist areas, they’re not likely to pay more than 40 or 50 baht for a portion from a street vendor. Along with curries and phad Thai, som tam is up at the top of the list of Thai culinary treasures, and versions of Thailand’s famed papaya salad can also be found in Laos and Cambodia.
You’ll find several different types of som tam in Thailand these days. Here’s a run-down on the most common variations:
Som tam Thai: This has the basic ingredients of shredded green papaya, chilli, garlic, lime juice, tomatoes and long beans, with the addition of crunchy roasted peanuts, palm sugar and dried shrimp.
Som tam pu: Here you have the basics, with the addition of well brined black crabs and sometimes palm sugar. Pu translates to crab, so if you see ‘pu’ or ‘poo’ in any Thai dish’s name, don’t be alarmed, there are no sinister ingredients involved!
Som tam Thai sai pu: This is som tam Thai, with the addition of brined crabs.
Som tam Thai goong sod: This version consists of som tam Thai, with the extra ingredient of cooked shrimp (goong translates to shrimp/prawn, and sod means fresh as opposed to dried).
Som tam pu pla ra: Again we have the basic ingredients, but made fancier with the addition of brined crabs (pu) and pickled fermented fish (pla ra).
Som tam Lao: It’s the basic, minus tomatoes, but with pla ra.
Som tam sua: Here we have som tam Lao, and added to that, kanom jeen (rice noodles), for a bit of a twist.
Som tam khai khem: For added protein and flavour, this has the extra ingredient of salted eggs (khai means egg, and khem, salty).
Som tam moo grob: Crispy pork is added to som tam Thai (moo is pork, and grob means crispy).
The list can go on and on with what you can put in your som tam, be it crispy fish, dried fish, or even mussels. Replacing some or all of the papaya with another fruit or vegetable, such as cucumber, green mango or apple, is also an option and carrot is already a popular addition to papaya in many restaurants.
It is usually prepared at the top end of the spicy scale, so if your palate isn’t accustomed to the heat, remember to ask for it ‘mai phet’, or not spicy. This fragrant, spicy salad packs a real punch and is eaten any time of the day. So we challenge you to give it a try if you’re not already hooked. Start with the basics if the thought of fermented fish or brined crab doesn’t appeal at first. From there, get a little more adventurous with your choice of som tam. Save the other Thai favourites for the fancy