Originating from Northeastern Thailand and Laos. You’ll find som tam vendors of every street corner of Bangkok, bashing away with a giant pestle and mortar, making this salad to order for their eager customers. There are many variations in existence, and you can ask for any of them to be on the salty/spicy/sweet side – up to you.
There are several different methods of julienning the papaya. The potentially dangerous, and most common way, is to hold the papaya in your left hand, and furiously chop into it lengthways with a large knife, held in the right hand. Once you have many cuts in the papaya flesh, you then flatten the blade against the papaya and slice down the length, removing the top layer and many julienned pieces at the same time. There is definitely a knack to it. You can get many different tools to achieve a similar effect, one looking like a potato peeler with a zig-zag blade, which is my favourite. Don’t bother using a grater as the individual pieces of papaya will be too flat and floppy, and won’t crunch in your mouth. Experiment and see what works for you.
When you pound the salad, don’t smash the papaya to a mush. What you’re looking to do is bruise and soften it a little, but not smash it to a pulp!!
How hot do you want it? Of course, chillies are not all the same size or strength. When ordering som tam, you need to specify how many chillies you want the vendor to add. It definitely requires some thought when making it yourself. I love high heat levels, and, over years have developed quite a tolerance. However, one of the few times that too many chillies have actually sent me into a catatonic state, was from eating a particular som tam in a restaurant in Koh Lanta. It was a lovely salad, but the heat took me completely by surprise, and by the time I realised what was going on, my lips and tongue weren’t able to spell out a request for water from our waitress. Suddenly all my senses shut down to cope with the intense pain in my mouth. Go careful.
2 cloves of garlic
2 – 7 Thai red chillies
1 x green papaya, peeled
handful of green beans, topped and tailed
handful of cherry tomatoes
about 2 tablespoons of peanuts
about 1 tablespoon of dried shrimp
2 or 3 splashes of fish sauce
about 1 teaspoon of palm sugar
a lime or 2
1. Shred the papaya, until you have about 2 cups worth.
2. Pound the chillies, garlic, and palm sugar, until roughly smashed.
3. Add the papaya and pound for a minute. As you pound the papaya, every couple of times you do so, use a spoon to turn the papaya to mix it all up.
4. Add the beans and bruise them too.
5. Add the peanuts, shrimp, and tomatoes. Season with fish sauce and lime juice. Pound it a bit more, whilst mixing with the spoon.
6. Taste it. It should be salty, sour, a little sweet, and rather hot, depending on how many chillies you added. The papaya should still provide satisfying resistance to the teeth when you chew it.
7. Serve with BBQ chicken (recipe coming soon), and spicy dip.