Som Tum or Som Tam – Isaan Style Spicy Thai Papaya Salad

If you’ve ever wondered how to make Spicy Thai Papaya Salad, then relax because with the aid of some photographs I’m going to show you how. This recipe is for the red hot spicy Isaan version of the fiery salad called Som Tum or Som Tam (ส้มตำ).

First, you need to clear all your house furniture to the sides of the room. You’ll need space because if you put too many red chillies into this salad dish, you’re going to need a clear run to the hong nam (toilet). In Isaan, they believe in making a spicy Thai salad เผ็ด เผ็ด เผ็ด (spicy, spicy, spicy).

Let’s first look at the main ingredients. These should all be readily available to you.

  • 4 or 5 quartered tomatoes มะเขือเทศ
  • a small lime มะนาว
  • 12 birds’ eye chillies  พริก (seriously cut that amount if you can’t swallow fire)
  • A good handful of shredded papaya มะละกอ
  • 2 garlic cloves กระเทียม
  • Monosodium Glutamate (phong chu rot) ผงชูรส
  • Fermented fish juice (bla rah) ปลาร้า

Put the red chillies and garlic cloves into a mortar and grind them into a goo (cookery terminology) with a pestle.

Please remember not to lick the end of the pestle clean after you’ve finished. If you do, then turn the mortar upside down and repeatedly bang your head on its flat bottom until the fire in your mouth has extinguished.

Som Tam or Som Tum, this spicy Thai salad is also called Papaya Pok Pok, and I’ve got my theory about why. When the chillies are beaten and ground in the mortar, the noise sounds very much like pok pok pok. When you hear that noise, you know a spicy salad is on its way.

Making this spicy Thai salad is quick and straightforward although monosodium glutamate may be new to some of you. Let’s get Sticky Wiki out her box and see exactly what it is. A quick look-up her skirt revealed this:

Monosodium glutamate, also known as sodium glutamate and MSG, is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid. It is used as a food additive and marketed as a flavour enhancer.

For a more arousing and revealing look up Sticky Wiki’s skirt here’s the link to the Wikipedia article.

Let’s make the salad.

  • Place the shredded papaya and tomatoes into the mortar.
  • Cut the lime in half and squeeze the juice from one portion over the salad. Slice the other half into the mortar.
  • Add a level tablespoonful of monosodium glutamate (msg).
  • Add two large spoonfuls of fermented fish sauce (bla rah).
  • Using a pestle and spoon gently mix and lightly crush the salad and fish sauce together. Gently crushing the salad helps the fish sauce flavour soak into the papaya.

You now have your Isaan style spicy Thai papaya salad, and if you have used 12 red chillies, it’s going to be nuclear hot.

The photograph below shows the papaya salad after it’s emptied from the mortar. The presentation looks poor, but in Isaan villages, it’s often served to family members just like this. Taste comes before presentation when it’s papaya pok pok time.

Som Tum is an innocent-looking salad, but believe me, it has a spicy kick to it which would make a mule sick with envy.

Spicy Thai papaya salad is eaten at any time of the day in Isaan, even for breakfast, and is nearly always served with sticky rice.

The photograph on the right shows it accompanied with sliced Thai sausage, omelette and vegetables. The vegetables are for taste and nourishment but also to partly neutralize the spiciness of the salad. Water is never far away too.

In Isaan, primarily where ladies are concerned, spicy Thai papaya salad is a part of their everyday life. It’s a social dish to be shared with friends and family, a gathering to savour a spicy meal and to catch up on the latest village gossip, and no doubt to hear what numbers are hot for the next lottery draw. Most Thai ladies will swear it doesn’t taste as good when eaten alone.

There you have it, a recipe for spicy Thai papaya salad and hopefully a recipe for an enjoyable meal with your family and friends.

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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.

23 Responses

  1. Snap says:

    Martyn I don’t think I’ll ever be able to attempt an Isaan strength Som Tum..phet maak maak!!!! I do love the toned down version though.

    Your reference to Monosodium Glutamate (phong chu rot) ผงชูรส freaked me out a bit…I’ve just written (not published) a post on that very subject. I’m still undecided about how I feel about it.

    I need to go and buy one of those shredder doovalackies so I can have a go at making my own Som Tum…thanks for the recipe.

  2. Hoo Don says:

    Snap I’ll have a read of your article on phong chu rot when you release it, I’m guessing it’s about the dangers associated (unproven) with the product.

    Wilai’s young cousin (male) who is about ten years old shredded the papaya, he made it look so easy. The youngsters quite often help out Aunt Wilai with the cooking duties.

  3. Malcolm says:

    Martyn, Ciejay and me enjoy a good not to spicy Papaya salad for lunch ever so often , but like you say Ciejay can eat it any time and of course the ladies here on our soi all get together at least twice a week for the weekly sharing talks ha ha , and they really make some hot salads to go alone with all the hot news, the hotter the news the hotter the salad . I like just a papaya salad without the crab or shrimp (little pink dried things that stink sooo bad ) Thanks for all the great pictures and recipe, I am fowarding them to my daughter -in -law , that has a cooking school in her home in the USA. take care . Malcolm

  4. Hoo Don says:

    Malcolm thanks for a smashing comment, this one has certainly touched your taste buds. I love this bit, it made me smile and that’s not easy at the moment because I’m starting a run of nights this evening.

    “….they really make some hot salads to go along with all the hot news, the hotter the news the hotter the salad.”

    That’s about bang on.

    I hope your daughter-in-law enjoys the recipe and hasn’t got too much furniture in her home.

  5. kris says:

    Martyn, great post. You are right about that second pok, pok. You need to be a good shot to get the complete cooling effect! Cat tells me she puts the paw paw in last and just stirs it through. She also adds fish sauce, sugar and crab. She also says that you make it the way you like it, no hard and fast rules, apart from the amount of chillies that is. For Thai Som Tum delete bla, insert small shrimp, cashew nuts, and fish sauce.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Kris I guess the ingredients are mixed in a different order by most Thais but the end result is the same, one potent dish, especially if you’ve used 12 red chillies.

    Wilai sometimes adds crab but never sugar, she uses phong chu rot to effectively sweeten it a touch.

    I love cashew nuts but not with a chilli seed sat on top. Roasted cashews with finely chopped spring onion sprinkled on top are a Thai dish I absolutely adore.

  7. Mike says:

    Hi Martyn, I only starting eating Som Tam recently since I have been dieting and coincidentally found a shop that understands me enough to make a very mild version.

    I found I really like it but having read how much MSG it contains perhaps I will cut down my portions.

    You don’t say in the article if you eat it……my guess is not, knowing a little about you…..

    If this is the case then good for you because MSG is supposed to be bad for Asthma mind you so is smoking too 😉

  8. Hoo Don says:

    Mike papaya pok pok is probably an excellent choice to aid any diet, it’s low on calories and sometimes has a laxative effect. It’s definitely not a dish to consume at the start of a 10 hour coach or train journey.

    I have read about the supposed dangers attributed to MSG but didn’t realise it could trigger asthma.

    I do take the odd sliver of som tum and do like the taste but Wilai’s version is too spicy for me. I sometimes nibble at the milder versions of it in restaurants and would eat it now and again if I resided in Thailand like you.

    MSG and asthma, I’ll settle for half a cigarette after my next go at a mild som tum.

  9. Snap says:

    Martyn…sorry to be a pest! I forgot to click the followup comment box before. I’m interested in other reader’s responses about the MSG, in particular.

  10. Hi Martyn, Som Tam is without doubt my favourite Thai dish. My wife is able to make a vegetarian friendly version. I never minded plaa raa, but I don’t miss it either; it is just as nice with tamarind juice and sugar – at least I think so anyway.

  11. Hoo Don says:

    Paul sorry about my slow response but I’ve been on nights.

    Som tam must have been good in the bad old days for ridding the after taste of alcohol. Tamarind juice and sugar sounds lovely added to a salad. It sounds better than bla raa smells.

  12. Hoo Don says:

    Talen I think I could get to quite like som tam if I lived in Thailand, its definitely got a novel taste. I guess you’ve got to work up chilli by chilli until you’re ready for the big one.

    I don’t fancy it with crab, just plain salad for me.

  13. Lawrence says:

    Nice post, Martyn. The pictures complement the recipe instructions perfectly.

    I’m with Malcolm when it comes to the little field crabs and dried shrimps, I prefer Som Tum without them. Unlike Paul, I’m not at all keen on Plaa Raa. Here in Phana they distinguish between Thai Som Tum and Lao Som Tum, which comes out looking very grey. Not my favoure colour for food. Thai for me every time, in this case.

    When my old mum lived with us in UK, she loved Pensri’s Som Tum. If there was any left she would put it in a sandwich the next day. We soon learned to make sure there was some left for her to do that.

  14. Hoo Don says:

    Lawrence – Wilai does sometimes make the salad with field crab, it depends if her uncle has given some of his catch to her.

    Your description of a Lao som tum sounds like a perfect English dish to compliment the weather. Very grey.

    A papaya pok pok sandwich, classic but not the sort of thing I could tackle.

  15. Catherine says:

    I’m one who goes with no MSG, no sugar, and spicy (Thai spicy). They nod at the first two but we usually get into a long conversation about the last one.

  16. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I can imagine you deep in conversation at your local street som tum stall. I bet the pair of you sometimes wonder what you’re both there for. The chat must drift away to many interesting conversations.

  17. Talen says:

    Martyn, excellent post. I enjoy some som tam every now and then and I have found I like it on the spicier side these days. I love it with crab but sometimes they make it with smashed fish parts and I back away.

  18. apple says:

    where’s the palm sugar? it should have a sweet ingredient for balance :))

  19. Hoo Don says:

    Apple thanks for dropping by. This Isaan dish doesn’t use palm sugar, Msg is added to offset the really sour taste. Try it.

  20. Lani says:

    I used to watch my mom make this and think it was so strange and when I saw the crab bits – disgusting. Now, I love it.

  21. Hoo Don says:

    Lani – Wilai sometimes puts crab into her dish but mainly she goes for the recipe I’ve shown here. For years I’ve been fascinated watching Wilai make her som tam and I swear one day I’m going to have a go at making one for her. First I’ve got to learn how to shred that papaya.

  22. Lani says:

    Oh yeah, definitely an art form.

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