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.
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.