It’s taken me a long time to get around to it, but I think the moment’s right to talk about som tam.
More specifically, som tam Thai.
Som tam Thai is the type of som tam you may have encountered in a UK Thai restaurant. It’s a zingy, spicy salad, and its chief ingredient is green papaya. The papaya is shredded and bashed up in a large mortar with carrots, some long green beans, tomatoes, dried shrimp, fresh chilli, garlic and an assortment of dressing ingredients including palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice.
It’s served with a topping of roasted peanuts.
When it comes to the number of chillies, I’m afraid I’m a “prik nung” girl, which translates as “one chilli”. I was okay with “prik song” (two chillies), but anything beyond that and the heat punched all the flavours into submission and left me casting around for something to take away the burn.
Our Thai host, on the other hand, was happy with 4 or 5 chillies. H loves chilli, but even he was in awe of her ability to eat something that spicy without batting an eyelid.
She also preferred som tam Isaan/Isan, which is pictured below. This lacks the peanuts, and has some crab bits and a more fermented fishy sauce.
I’m definitely som tam Thai all the way though, and it’s worth specifying when ordering if you want to make sure what you’re getting!
I have tried making som tam back in the UK, and it is possible to obtain all the ingredients from specialist Asian shops. However a single green papaya can cost over £6, which is crazily expensive. I really need to find a cheap, British alternative – I’ll let you know if I do.
I really cannot recommend this salad enough. To me, it is quintessentially Thai, and is on sale everywhere, from fancy restaurants to ramshackle street stalls. Our Thai host was a regular addict, and with a salad this sensational, I can see why.