Thai Village Life – Som Tum Spicy Thai Salad


Early this year my Thai partner Wonderful Wi set up shop in our village garden selling som tum (spicy papaya salad). A Thai style thatch roof kitchen was built, and the village’s newest snack service rolled out. It wasn’t by any means an innovative business idea, but there was a hungry market out there willing to be fed.

Thai Village Life – Selling Som Tum


There’s good days and bad days. A rush of customers sometimes, a drizzle now and then, and occasionally a near-drought. The business started with a boom. That has now slowed to a hard-core of customers and steady passing trade. That’s much in line with most small village food stalls. Most folks tend to grab their snacks not pedalling too far or taking too much gas from the tank. Getting on with your neighbours is good business sense.

red-chilli-som-tumHow do you describe som tum’s taste and flavour? Red-hot, fiery, sweet, sour, peppery, pungent, tangy. Take your pick. Any three will do. The salad’s high red chilli content makes it a very hot-tempered dish. Click on the photograph to enlarge.

Som tum is a big favourite with Thai women. They say it doesn’t taste as good eaten alone and is better shared with family and friends. I tend to avoid those social gatherings because full-blown som tum is too spicy for me.

The essential ingredients to make som tum are tomatoes, a small lime, shredded papaya, red chillies, garlic cloves, fermented fish sauce and the somewhat controversial flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate. Next, pound rice paddy black crab (poo-na) or shrimp into the mix. Chinese noodles can be added to the mortar as well.


Takeaway or Eat-In

Wilai sells som tum for 30 baht a plateful or takeaway bag. And there’s seating next to the beach bar-style kitchen. My som tum ‘special’ is red chilli free with extra pork crunchies. I can flirt with the red-hot all-out version, but a good mouthful smelts my taste buds senseless. The milder sketch is an enjoyable lunchtime snack.


In sum, profits aren’t eye-opening figures. Wilai’s income is anything between 100 – 250 baht a day. The bonus is, the kitchen also doubles as her flower workshop. Wilai sells flower garlands at the local town’s twice-monthly Buddhist Day market. Luckily for her, flower power outpaces som tum in the profit stakes.

Have you got a taste for Thailand’s spicy papaya salad, som tum?

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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.

7 Responses

  1. Catherine says:

    “100 – 250 baht a day”

    When I first got here I thought that was awfully small to live on (especially when I compared it to imported western food, like a jar of pickles, or a couple of artichokes). But in the north, it’s a liveable wage. I know drivers who make 250 baht per day (minimum wage outside of Bangkok) yet have iPhones.

  2. Martyn says:

    Catherine – I think it’s a survivable wage, not much more. Wilai does make more money selling flowers but she has to put a lot of time and effort into making them.

    The price of cheese always makes me draw sharp breath when I’m in a Thai supermarket so I can relate to the jar of pickles. Back to the 100-250 baht a day. I can assure you I make sure the lass doesn’t go short. i’m just pleased she tries hard to stand on her own two feet.

  3. peter m smith says:

    my wife also has sold papaya salad at the restaurant at our house. i think most Thai women and girls can make the salad, passed down for mother to daughter, etc.

  4. Martyn says:

    Peter – I’m surprised Thai women don’t get bored of eating som tum. They seem to eat it everyday but seem to like it just the same. I don’t think I could eat something each and everyday.

  5. peter m smith says:

    Martyn, yes i understand what you are saying. It seems like the papaya salad is a staple food like bread to a farang

  6. peter m smith says:

    as to the net profit situation mentioned in the article on selling papaya salad out of the home, well thats Thailand and don’t forget their can feed themselves also

  7. Martyn says:

    Peter – I was thinking potatoes not bread for a comparison…. bread is the better one, and I do eat it most days. Love the stuff.

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