A Real Bum Deal – Som Tum

Papaya Pok PokLast week I concluded my Thailand At Work mini series with Village Noodles a post about one of Wonderful Wi’s relations who was struggling to earn a living in their village by selling noodles and spicy papaya salad. In early June Wilai’s aunt finally gave up on her cooking venture and headed back to Bangkok and her previous employment at a flower pot factory. For the past six weeks Wilai has been cooking up a storm after taking over the reins at her Aunt Sawn’s premises.

Wi has been working seven days a week cooking noodles and preparing papaya pok pok (som tum or som tam) plus a few extra dishes and business has been excellent. On good days Wi is taking over 500 baht in sales but she is now starting to suffer from her long 70 hour working weeks with my telephone conversations with her often hearing the normally bubbly village lass complain:

‘ Hus…band, me wery wery tired…mark mark.’

Mid week business is fairly quiet and I have now convinced Wilai to rest from Monday to Thursday and only work the much busier weekends.

To the village women and indeed throughout Thailand som tum is the British equivalent of the BLT sandwich or bacon buttie and is an any time of day snack to be shared with family and friends giving the ladies a chance to catch up on all the news and gossip over a plateful of spicy Thai salad. To most men its a water to the eyes, don’t touch your flies type of gelignite dish that’s best avoided on a full bladder or an even slightly susceptible stomach.

Gunpowder’s quick burning mix of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate is more than matched by som tums blend of green papaya, red chillies, garlic, fish sauce, tomatoes and sugar to give a real som (sour) tum taste that can be so spicy that it would have had Guy Fawkes reconsidering the formula of his gunpowder receipe.

Isaan meal

The Thai dishes pictured above are a typical sight in many Isaan village homes as families gather to discuss the day’s events and watch TV soaps. Grilled chicken, som tum and sticky rice is probably one of the most common meals I see when staying at our village house although fish often replaces the crisp cooked poultry.

The spicy salad is a real social dish and when I see groups of young Thai women sharing the spoils it never ceases to remind me of their western counterparts chatting over a mid morning coffee or early evening glass of wine after leaving the office behind. The grapevine is fed by shredded papaya and birds eye chillies.

Wilai’s papaya pok pok sells at just ten baht a dish and I wonder when the tourist spots of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket last saw the dish available at such low costs. Thailand’s resort prices (20 – 30 baht ) are still extremely cheap when put on a comparison with London, take a look at the prices of the Thai appetizer listed below. At those prices the dish should be authentic and the burn to your tongue as deep as the one in your wallet.

  • Mango Tree Restaurant – Grosvenor Place SW1 £6.00
  • Som Tum Thai – Southeast Portland £6.50
  • Yum Yum Thai Restaurant – Stoke Newington High St. NI6 £8.10

Nong KhaiSpicy food is very popular here in the UK with Thai restaurants ranking behind Indian restaurants in the UK’s choice of foreign eateries but certainly not lagging behind pricewise.

The meal in the photo on the right was savoured in a riverside restaurant in Nong Khai, north east Thailand and included an out of shot tom yum soup. The cost which included a bottle of beer was less than £10, proving what great value Thailand is especially outside of the tourist hotspots. London looks a real bum deal when compared to this.

If you are taking your first trip to the Land of Smiles and find a dish of som tum set before you, the finger licking style of Thai eating might be best avoided, otherwise a journey to the hong nam (toilet) may turn into  a voyage of painful discovery. Those red hot chillies have a tendency to stain fingers and burn any delicate items they may touch. Be warned.

To make your own som tum then click on this link to Thai Recipes.


Photograph     Isaan meal by Takeaway


I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

13 Responses

  1. Talen says:

    I remember my first foray into som tam quickly followed by my first foray into a Thai toilet. Neither ended well.

    There are no adjectives in the English language to properly name the lava like qualities of the dish.

    It still amazes me the prices for real Thai food in Thailand…you can literally eat for 50 baht a day and be very full if you needed too. I love an Issan dish that is just spicy minced pork and you can get it all day long for 20 baht.

    Hope Wii’s business keeps going well and she gets some much deserved rest.
    .-= Talen´s last blog ..Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha =-.

  2. Dutchie says:

    Thai Express n Thai Central r 2 restaurant chains in Singapore. The red or green curries (noodles or meat dishes) r pretty mild. Glass-noodles is quite the rage.

    In BKK we hv tried the roadside stalls near the hotel n they were very good meals for a few baht. Somehow the firey experience has eluded us !

    Som Tum seems to resemble the rojak in Singapore. It has a sauce base of crushed peanut, molassy shrimp paste, lemon juice, sugar n red chillies. It’s a fruity salad comprising of slices of pineapple, cucumber, cooked bean sprouts n crispy tofu. The Indonesian has their version with warm spicy peanut sauce over fried tofu n veggies. It’s called gado-gado. Is Indo food a rarity in the UK ?

    I’m also curious if Indian food there r authentic ?
    Asian restaurants here hv adepted themselves to please the dutch. We hv given up after a few disappointing experiences of bland food 🙁

  3. Hoo Don says:

    Talen – ‘I remember my first foray into som tam quickly followed by my first foray into a Thai toilet. Neither ended well.’
    Thai toilets, there’s a post in itself.

    Eating Thai food is dirt cheap for us but not for them. Wilai told me today that in the village it is now 100 baht for 30 eggs, it didn’t move me one bit but it should have. I hope my future will be in Wi’s Isaan village and to succeed with those plans I have to come around to her way of thinking, that means thinking eggs are getting expensive.

    I take it the minced pork dish is some form of lab moo, I’ve tried that myself and I can go with it no problem.

    My dashboard is falling to pieces, no spellchecker, plugins not functioning and now no incoming links. I’m starting to bale out water and there’s no land in sight. Can you issue a mayday call. Launch the lifeboats.

  4. Hoo Don says:

    Dutchie I must confess to not being a great lover of Thai food although very slowly I’m getting to like it more. Give me fish and chips anytime or a good steak pie. In my hometown Indo food is a complete rarity but London is cosmopolitan with a capital C. I checked out gado gado and rojak on wikipedia and this is what it says about the latter which is known as rojak in Singapore and rujak in Indonesia.

    ‘In Indonesia, especially among Javanese, rujak is an essential part of the traditional prenatal ceremony called “Tujuh Bulanan” (literally: seventh month). Special fruit rujak is made for this occasion, and later served to the mother-to-be and her guests, primarily her female friends). It is widely known that the sweet, spicy and sour tastes of rojak are adored by pregnant women. The recipe of rujak for this ceremony is similar to typical Indonesian fruit rujak, with the exceptions that the fruits are roughly shredded instead of thinly sliced, and that pomelo/pink grapefruit is an essential ingredient. It is believed that if the rujak overall tastes sweet, the unborn would be a girl, and if it is spicy, the unborn baby is a boy.’

    The description of the two salads would seem to make it not quite as potent as som tum and therefore I believe both would be perfectly okay by me.

  5. Catherine says:

    ‘hus…band, me wery wery tired…mark mark.’

    She’s holding down 70 hour work weeks? No wonder! Poor thing, I hope she does take your good advice and relax into it or she’ll burn out totally.

    And with 70 hours, she won’t have any time to enjoy her life. Although I imagine she’s having a blast being able to talk with the friends and family stopping by for a meal.

    When it comes to Thai food, Issan is one of my favs (note: I have a lot of favs).

    Their barbecued pork necks with a spicy dipping sauce is to die for. Their barbecued anything really.

    Ari has a tongue-drooling Issan restaurant behind where Reflections used to be (they ripped Reflections out and are busy putting in yet another condo complex).

    A chilled glass of white wine (Singha for the man), barbecued pork necks and chicken bits, som tum and sticky rice, a curry, and the obligatory green stuff (forever changing), is an enjoyable meal.

    It’s always too much for two people – to get a real experience, Thai food should be shared with a group – but… what can we leave out? Thai food is created (is that the right word?) to go from flavour to flavour.

    The som tum in Ari is made with the hottest Thai chilies available = พริก ขี้ หนู = prík kêe nŏo = chili shit mouse = rat dropping chilies.

    The chilies are tiny, but they pack a wallop! And more chilies = more Singha (or white wine) and sticky rice. For sure 🙂
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners: Rikker Dockum =-.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I have managed to talk Wi into taking the midweek days off and when I phoned her Wednesday she was back to her old bubbly self, that gave me a big boost. The Ari restaurant sounds perfect, it must be full of lots of Isaan folk getting a taste of home, is it expensive ? It sounds a great social night out and the food would make Wi’s eyes bulge and her mouth water. Where exactly in Bangkok is it ?

  7. Looks like you had som tum with salted crab and fish, if I guess right. (puu and pla) this might have been a bit too much for you. If you want som tum, then maybe go for the plain som tum without the additionals and see if it helps. Just a recommendation.

  8. Catherine says:

    I’m glad to hear that Wii has gone back to enjoying life. Life is way to short to work those type of hours in Thailand.

    The Issan restaurant in Ari is not expensive (in my opinion). It has more Thai than western customers (I’ve only run across expats once or twice). It’s a quite Soi. Trees shade the area. The setting is comfortable, you can sit outside or in. On the grounds is an antique shop (I’ve never been).

    Ari is Paholyothin Soi 7. Soi 7 is known as Soi Ari and is quite well known as a ‘best kept secret’.. if there is such a thing.

    Google ‘Bangkok Forum: Ari BTS and Ari area, good bad and the ugly’. Google ‘Reflections’ while you are at it as the sites usually talk about Soi Ari.

    When Reflections was on Soi 7, it was known as artsy, trendy area. Reflections has moved but I believe the models are still housed at Baan Yoswadi so expect to see tall, stunning loooking young people in their 20’s walking around the area. Gals as well as guys.

    Directions… There are two Soi Ari’s in Bangkok, make sure you tell the taxi driver it’s in Paholyothin, not the Suk area. Or, you can just get off the Ari BTS station on the opposite side of the road to Villa Market. There is a shortcut, but… when you get on the road, turn a sharp right and walk back up alongside the BTS until you reach Soi 7. Turn left on Soi 7, then walk a couple of blocks until you notice a building site. That’s where Reflections used to be and where a new condo will soon be. Keep walking, taking a left to make your way around the building site. Before you take the left, you’ll notice a sign for an Issan restaurant. It’s on your left.

    If you walk further along that road, you’ll come across the new Reflections restaurant. I haven’t been as it’s only open at night. Besides, the food wasn’t that grand before. The ambiance was the thing.

    Here’s the new Reflections Hotel, rebuilt to look like the former one. The rooms are quite fun, each created by a different designer. They are terribly gaudy, but it works. http://www.reflections-thai.com/ The former place was brilliant shock of pinks and oranges and greens and purples. Lamp shades that shocked. It was wonderful.

    If you go even further, you’ll run into a large Thai restaurant, a Dim Sum place and a Thai pub. The pub (The Lobby) is quite well done. It has a pool table, large TV, decent live music, and comfy sofas. The food is not the greatest but the peanuts, pool table and live music all make up for it.

    There are interesting restaurants tucked all through Ari, you just need to know where to look. I’m still finding more but I’m in no rush looking.

    Two stops on the Skytrain is Victory Monument, where you’ll find the Saxophone Pub. The Sax Pub has decent music (the food is not to my liking). http://www.saxophonepub.com/

    Go the other direction up Paholyothin and you have JJ Market and the parks. They even have bowls set up.

    Btw – as I mentioned, Ari does have expats. But they are professionals, not tourists. Ari is a totally different world than Suk and Pattaya. When I first got here there were expats but not many. Now, more and more are moving into the area. The ease of the BTS is a draw, but I also believe it’s because of the Villa complex with a Starbucks, restaurants and book store. Oh, and a Mac shop…

    As usual, this is more than you asked for 😀
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners: Rikker Dockum =-.

  9. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine what a marvellous comment, it must of taken you ages to write it and you deserve a big drink after this one. When Wilai and myself do take some time out in the Big Mango will will definitely check out Ari.

    It really does appear to be a unique area assuming one can find it of course but your directions will be of a massive help and not just for me. My statcounter page views often show that people do read the comments page on a lot of posts and anyone reading this will have their interest bells ringing loudly.

    I clicked on the links and Reflections Hotel has some fun, weird and wonderful art decor for each of its rooms and at 2,250 baht I guess that’s not too bad for Bangkok. Shut your eyes and reopen them and the Sax Pub could be in any major town or city in the UK and I will visit there for sure. A massive thanks for the information and the time and care you put into providing it.

  10. Mike says:

    Martyn I enjoy reading your food posts.

    Theres little for me to add since other correspondents have said it all.

    You are right about the comments, if they are do follow then they get indexed and add to the value of the original post.

    A couple of comments about chillies made me wince since I have had a similar experience when cooking in the UK.
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Sexy Thai University Students. =-.

  11. Catherine says:

    It did take awhile to write, but as I was totally bored with what I was supposed to be doing at the time… 😉

    I have a feeling that Wi will enjoy Ari as it’s more Thai than the highly expat populated Suk-type areas. Coming from the country, she’ll also enjoy our tree lined streets (an oddity in BKK). If you do bring her, please let me know what she thinks.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Thai 101 Learners Series: The Long and Short of Thai Vowels =-.

  12. Hoo Don says:

    Hello Mike, I don’t fully understand the do or no follow thing at all and I assume this site is do follow so please let me know if it’s not. As far as papaya pok pok goes I have always been fascinated by the social side of it and still am, a truly amazing social dish.

    Professional Website Design – You were nearly right, the crab is actually King prawns. Thanks.

  13. Hoo Don says:

    Thanks Catherine, I’ll reply later. Off to work in 7 minutes, then 2 days off. Cheers……Back home and lovely, two days off. I am sure when we do make it there Wilai will love it, she really does enjoy her food but manages to retain her figure, lucky girl. I quite like the look of the Sax Pub and will head there for a few beers as well. When we make it is another matter because a friend was getting married in Bangkok this Xmas but has now switched the event to Khon Kaen so I guess Bangkok will be sometime next year. Next month it’s Kanchanaburi and Udon.

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