What is som tam?
Som tam is called the best salad in the world and not without reason. It’s so spicy that you can’t stop eating it, and simultaneously freshly crunchy, sweet and sour. Despite the hot chillies, it is invigorating and refreshing in the Thai heat.
Som tam is usually called papaya salad in the west. The word som means acid, and tam refers to the method of preparation; it means something like crushing or pounding. In a typical Central Thai som tam – the most famous to those outside Thailand – you’ll find strips of papaya, tomatoes, chilli peppers, beans, dried shrimps and peanuts. This version is often a bit sweeter than those from other parts of the country.
Although papaya is the most famous ingredient, it is not the main ingredient in all versions of the dish. Each region has its own customs and beloved ingredients. In the north, the taste is often more bitter, sometimes even intoxicatingly intense, thanks to the black-grey land crabs that go in whole and the fermented fish sauce that adds an extra kick. Other versions include tam taeng kwaa, with cucumber,, and som tam phonlamai, with fruit. But whatever it contains, everybody loves som tam.
If you walk round a Thai market, in the dust and heat, with mopeds speeding dangerously close, you will always hear the characteristic sound – crunch crunch – of the pestle and mortar coming from somewhere. Som tam is certainly being made there.
Did you know...
Som tam is prepared to order in Thailand. The seller, often working from a tiny handcart, makes each salad to order – no crab, extra chilli, whatever you want – and sometimes they let the customer taste a bite halfway through the preparation. This way, the taste can be adapted to each customer. Sometimes the customer even takes over the pestle from the seller and starts pounding themselves. The salesperson is not offended, but politely takes a step back.
How to make som tam?
Som tam is prepared from start to finish in an enormous earthenware mortar, with the accompanying hefty pestle. Palm sugar, garlic and chilli peppers are broken into pieces in the mortar. This is accompanied by pieces of lime, with skin and all – crunch crunch – and dried shrimps and beans. The purpose of the pestle is not to mash these ingredients, but to crush them lightly so that the flavours are released and mixed. Then lime juice, tamarind water and strips of green (unripe) papaya are added. These are also lightly bruised, not crushed, so that the papaya remains crunchy. The ingredients are stirred with a large spoon. Finally, pieces of tomato and peanuts are added.
How to eat
Spoon the papaya salad with the liquid, all on to a plate.
Som tam is delicious with a simple plate of sticky rice (khao niao), which calms and neutralises the taste buds between the bites. Serve with a Thai soup, like a tom yam or tom kha kai, and you have a healthy and filling meal.