Som Tum Papaya Salad: Everything You Need to Know About This Thai Dish
Som Tum or Papaya Salad isn’t your usual Thai dish. Salads are usually leafy and can be pretty bland unless covered in less healthy dressings and extras. This Thai favorite bucks the trend.
Try Thai food and pretty quickly you’ll get to know and love their flavors. Sweet, sour, fresh herbs and heat. Pad Thai, Khao Soi, Satay… the famous big hitters in Thailand go a long way to meeting this brief but few offer a burst of freshness like Som Tum.
This salad is available in practically every Thai restaurant you go into, as well as being available regularly in markets and on the street. Just look out for a strong pair of arms and a huge pestle and mortar.
What’s in Som Tum?
Wander up to a Som Tum stall and you’ll see a spread of ingredients that wouldn’t look out of place on Masterchef! Bowls, bottles, boxes and bags of all the Thai classics. It’s amazing that it only takes a few minutes to prepare when you see what goes into them.
To make a traditional salad you’ll need:
- Chilies – usually Bird’s Eye
- Fresh garlic
- Nam Pla – Fish Sauce
- Dried shrimp – whole!
- Palm sugar – the sweet to the sour.
- Crunchy peanuts
- Freshly squeezed limes
- Tomatoes – any colour, any size.
- Runner or long green beans
- Of course, green papaya – the unripe kind.
How is Som Tum made?
It looks straightforward when you watch the stall owners make it but the effort comes in the preparation and process. The papaya is prepared using a grater to create long, thin strips. We’re talking tons of it. This is the main ingredient after all. Tomatoes, beans and sometimes carrot are diced, sliced and prepared as well.
The main ingredients are all piled into the mortar. The real art is what follows. A very specific amount of the seasoning and sauce ingredients is added. Too much or too little of any and you’ll have generations of Thai chefs rolling in their graves. That said, don’t worry about ordering a salad to your taste. The experience of the creators means you’ll always have a tasty bowl.
Once the ingredients are all ready they are pounded and stirred and pounded again using the pestle. This fuses the flavors quickly without having to use any cooking process. Just like that, your salad is popped into a bowl and ready to eat.
Not everyone has the same palate. Some like it hot. Some like it sweet. Some don’t like shrimp. Thankfully you can order to your taste. Just be wary of a few things. The mortar, especially on the street, is rarely cleaned during a day’s use. Peanut and seafood allergy sufferers beware. Vegan and vegetarian eaters might want to order from restaurants for the same reason.
Nam pla (fish sauce) is a main constituent but isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s made from fermented, boiled and crushed fish. If you’ve ever seen (or smelt…) the process happening you’d be forgiven for never having it again. It’s easy to ask for less or none at all. You might get an odd look but that’s not the end of the world!
Chili is the other variable. Some chefs just put in one, others put in a whole handful. These Bird’s Eye chilies are not to be underestimated. We suggest start low and add if you need to. If you really can’t stand the heat, a quick “Mai ao prik.” (I don’t want chilies.) will see you survive!
Is papaya salad a main or a side?
Many people enjoy Som Tum in its own right as a meal or snack. Thais tend to eat regular, small portions throughout the day rather than sitting and having full meals at set times and Som Tum fits the bill. It’s at its best when paired with a portion of sticky rice which you can use to clamp the salad and mop up the sauce. If you’re in a market setting, we’d recommend grabbing a few barbecued skewers as a great pairing.
Som Tum Insider Tip
If you travel throughout the country you’ll see local variations depending on their own tastes, and also what crops they have available. Certain areas add cucumber as a main ingredient, others might add baby eggplant or sweetcorn. The northerners traditionally like their food hot, so if you’re in a Chiang Mai street market, check the chili level first!