Som Tam – or green papaya salad as it is known in English – makes it into almost any list of most loved Thai food dishes. It is no wonder! This spicy salad is a fresh touch in the Thai cuisine and combines some of its main tastes perfectly – sour (from lime), hot (from chili), salty (from fish sauce), and sweet (from palm sugar) – on a base of shredded unripe papaya.
Som Tam is claimed to originate among ethnic Lao people but is widely consumed all over South East Asia in various versions. In Thailand, the dish originates from the Isan province in the northeast, which borders to Laos, but now it is commonly available and very popular all over Thailand.
Despite the use of papaya, which many people think of as sweet, green unripe papaya has a much more neutral taste almost like cucumber, which makes the salad savory.
Som Tam versions:
Som Tam comes in numerous versions. A small restaurant I sometimes go to in Chiang Mai, which specializes in Isan dishes, has no less than 11 versions of Som Tam on the menu! Here is a list of a few versions:
- Som Tam Pu – with brined rice paddy crabs
- Som Tam Thai – one of the mildest versions, containing peanuts
- Som Tam Pla Ra – with salted gourami fish and white eggplants
The most popular among foreigners is probably Som Tam Thai, which excludes the more peculiar ingredients such as fermented fish or pickled crab. It is also the version, that has become famous internationally. The recipe below is the Som Tam Thai version.
Green papaya – shredded green papaya is the base ingredient. If replacing papaya with something else, it is recommended to use crisp and crunchy vegetables or fruits such as carrot, hard cucumber or green mango, as their texture most closely resembles that of green papaya and can withstand being beaten in a mortar.
Chilies – you can use both green or red chilies. I prefer to use the red ones, as it makes them easier to spot. I like the spiciness they add, but I am still not able to eat chilies without choking up, and the green chilies can too easily be mistaken for a been!
Palm sugar – use the soft version as that dissolves easier
Tamarind juice – possible to leave out, and still achieve a good result
Peanuts – use shelled unsalted roasted peanuts
Carrots – it is quite common to include a bit of shredded carrot. This is done mostly for the sake of adding color.
How to make Som Tam:
“Som” means sour and “Tam” to crush our pound. The name reflects that the main taste should be sour and that the ingredients are mixed in a mortar. Use a clay or wooden mortar with a wooden pestle for making Som Tam. If you don’t have that, use a big bowl instead, as a stone mortar most often will be too small to hold the ingredients. You don’t need to pound the ingredients very hard. They should only be lightly bruised, not crushed.
You start by pounding the chilies and garlic, then adding the liquid ingredients (fish sauce, lime, tamarind juice and palm sugar), and pour in the tomatoes, beans, and papaya last.
It only takes a few minutes to prepare
How to eat Som Tam:
You can eat it as is, with cabbage, green beans, sweet basil and extra peanuts on the side.
It is also very popular to eat it with sticky rice. Som Tam, sticky rice, and barbecued chicken is a very favored combination in Thailand and makes it more of a full meal. In the Isan province, it is also eaten together with other spicy salads such as Larb, Moo Nam Tok or Dam BakToa.
Som Tam is also a popular party dish in Thailand. I have been to several events, where all the ingredients have been lined up, for the guests to make their own plate of Som Tam. This allows everybody to balance the flavors to their exact liking.
Though Som Tam is offered in many restaurants it is popularly known as street food and can be bought at food stalls all over Thailand.
Som Tam - green papaya salad
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 chili
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- Juice from 1 lime
- 3 tbsp tamarind juice
- 2 long beans
- 3 small tomatoes
- 1 tbsp dried shrimp
- 2 tbsp unsalted peanuts
- 1.5 cup shredded green papaya
- Step 1 Pound the garlic and chili in the mortar
- Step 2 Add the palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and tamarind juice. Mix it well together.
- Step 3 Cut the beans in lengths of 2 cm. and the tomates in large pieces. Add and pound lightly.
- Step 4 Add the dried shrimp and half of the peanuts.
- Step 5 Finally add the green papaya and mix well.
- Step 6 Serve on a plate and sprinle the reamining peanuts on top.