Let’s head to the Land of the Eternal Smile, Thailand, for one of its most traditional dishes, a green papaya salad called som tam (or som tum).
What is said about Thai people is apparently true: they always smile even when things go wrong! It is true that this positive attitude has a way of quickly putting you at ease, which is probably why the majority of people who have visited Thailand come back thrilled about the country!
What is the origin of som tam?
Som tam is native to Northeastern Thailand. The cuisine of this region is of course heavily influenced by those of its neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. This Thai papaya salad can also be found in these countries under different names. Tam mak houng in Laos and bok l’hong in Cambodia. There are several versions of som tam in Thailand such as one with fermented fish or another one with pickled crab.
I chose to make the most famous som tam, namely the one with shrimp and peanuts.
This salad is composed of slices of green papaya that are mixed with garlic, palm sugar, cherry tomatoes, lime juice, fish sauce, shrimp, peanuts and hot pepper. The particularity of this salad is the presence of a three distinct flavors.
No umami flavor but this salad is sour (priao), sweet (wan) and salty (kem) at the same time. These three flavors are always found, although their intensity varies, depending on the proportions of lime, palm sugar and fish sauce. The harmony of the combination of these three tastes probably works thanks to chili. Indeed, a good and authentic som tam must be spicy (pet).
The name of som tam comes from the Isaan dialect: som means “sour” and tam means “hit” or “pound”. The name of this salad has to do with its traditional method of preparation that requires to pound and crush the sour mixture that accompanies the slices of green papaya with a mortar and pestle. Even today, the preparation of a good green papaya salad requires a pestle (sark). Thai cuisine experts believe that the som tam probably comes from Isaan and Laos, although today this salad has become more than a Thai than a Lao dish.
Thai cuisine is characterized by its flavors and extraordinary variety of ingredients, making it one of the most interesting of Asian culture. Although similar in some respects to that of its neighbors, the Chinese, Indians and Burmese, it stands out in many flavors and original ingredients such as curry, mint, lemongrass, coriander, basil, pepper, galangal, fish sauce, shrimp paste.
Thai cuisine also places great importance on sauces and condiments, such as soy sauce and spicy sauces, such as kruang and nam prik, which are popular condiments made from chopped dried chili, cucumber, garlic and fresh chili. As far as sweets are concerned, as is the case in Indian cuisine, desserts are essentially fruits, fruit salad and puddings.
Although Thai cuisine is elegant and refined, the presentation of the dishes on the tables is not done in a precise manner, according to a pre-established order. Instead, all dishes are served at the same time leaving the choice to the guests.
The most important meal in Thai culture is undoubtedly the dinner, which includes rice or noodles, very popular in Asia, soups or broths, a second dish of meat or fish, all complemented by spices, vegetables and fried meats and mixed salads, that are much appreciated.
In northern Thailand, food culture has been influenced by the cuisine of southern China and Burma over the years. The slightly cooler climate of the region means that access to vegetables and herbs is good. Relatively moderate use of spices and the presence of lime and garlic in the dishes have become one of the hallmarks of Northern culinary art.
For example, in the north, khao soi (egg noodle dish similar to ohn no khao swè) or nam phrik ong (chopped meat with chili and tomato).
In the north-east of Thailand, Isan’s agricultural areas compete with the southern provinces for the title of “Thailand’s spiciest cuisine”. Som tum is a staple.
It should be noted that in this region, people eat dishes that may seem somewhat extreme to the Western tastes: fried insects and dried frogs are often enjoyed as “snacks”, while snakes and cats are sometimes served as a main course in some parts of the region. Poverty and lack of other foods have probably contributed to this food tradition.
Some examples of Northeast dishes include hao niaow (sticky rice), gay yang (grilled chicken, often marinated in fish sauce, lemongrass, garlic, pepper and a little sugar).
In central Thailand, including Bangkok, there is a strong Chinese and Indian influence in the food culture. Rice is often the staple of Thai food so much that “eating” is often called kin khao which means “eating rice”. The central region is known to produce the best rice in the country. Thailand is the largest rice exporter in the world.
One of the most typical dishes of the region is tom yum king (shrimp in a lemon chili soup). It is a dish that is also widely consumed throughout the country.
It is also called “the fruit of the angels”, a beautiful name given by Christopher Columbus because of its delicious, sweet, and musky nuances. This tropical angel fruit is none other than papaya.
The green papaya used in som tam, is the immature fruit of the papaya tree (not actually of the tree, but of the plant), a tree native to Mexico. The shape of the fruits varies from an oblong shape to rounder forms. The core of the fruit has a cavity full of seeds. Ripe seeds can be dried and used as an alternative to black pepper. The immature seeds of the green papaya can not be used and are usually discarded.
Each part of a papaya, from the fruit to the leaves, has medicinal properties, making papaya an excellent choice of fruits to include in your diet.
Here are some health benefits of papaya:
– It reduces cholesterol.
– It helps with weight loss, being very low in calories and high in fiber, it satiates quickly, which facilitates weight loss.
– It strengthens immunity.
– It is good in case of diabetes because it is low in sugar despite its sweet taste.
– It has anti-aging properties: Antioxidants in papaya help control premature aging and help look younger.
– It is excellent for the skin: it can be applied directly to the skin and can be used, mixed, as a facial mask. It helps eliminate acne and skin infections.
Som tom is an excellent salad that can be used as a canvas. For example, instead of the green papaya, which can easily be found in Asian markets, you can use green mango, cucumber, cabbage, zucchini or green apple. Palm sugar can be replaced by honey.
I strongly recommend you that you try this Thai papaya salad recipe as quickly as you can don’t forget what the Thai proverb says:
Smiling at least three times a day makes medication useless!
- 1 green papaya (very firm and dark green)
- 6 oz. small fresh shrimps (or 4 teaspoons dried small shrimps)
- 3 carrots , coarsely grated
- 6 cherry tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons nam plaa sauce (or nuoc mam sauce)
- Juice of 3 limes
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar
- 6 tablespoons unsalted roasted peanuts , crushed
- 3 cloves garlic , crushed
- 1 tablespoon tamarind juice
- 3 red Thai chili peppers , coarsely chopped
- A few Thai cilantro leaves
- Peel and cut the papaya in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds.
- Rinse thoroughly with clean water to rid the fruit of its acidity. Grate papaya.
- Pound peppers and garlic with a pestle until reaching the consistency of a paste and mix with grated papaya and carrots
- Season with palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind juice, and lemon juice.
- Add tomatoes and shrimps and mix well.
- Add peanuts and mix well again.