Green Papaya Salad – Som Tam (or Som Dtam)*
A Recipe of Kasma Loha-unchit
Recipe Copyright © 1998 Kasma Loha-unchit.
This is one of the very favorite dishes of the Thai people. Although it probably originated in Isahn (northeastern Thailand), it can now be found all over Thailand, particularly as street food, for many of the vendors come from Isahn. It often made very spicy indeed!
- 6-8 large cloves garlic, cut each into 3-4 pieces
- 8-15 Thai chillies (prik kee noo), to desired hotness – each cut crosswise into 3-4 segments with seeds
- 1 cup long beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch segments
- 2 tsp. small dried shrimp
- 1 small whole salted crab (bpoo kem), cut into 6 pieces – optional
- 1 Tbs. palm sugar, or to taste
- Juice of 2-3 limes, to desired sourness
- 1 medium (about 2 lb. size) very firm, unripe green papaya, peeled and julienned into long strips to yield about 4 cups
- 2-3 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
- 6-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 Tbs. chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
If you have an average-size Laos-style baked clay mortar with wooden pestle, you may need to make the salad in two separate batches. With an extra-large carved palm wood mortar and pestle, the salad can be made in a single batch as follows.
Pound the garlic and Thai chillies together until they are pasty. Add the dried shrimp and pound to crack. Follow with the salted crab (if using) and long beans and pound well to bruise. Add the palm sugar, juice of two of the limes, and fish sauce and stir well. Add the julienned green papaya. Toss well with the seasonings. Then, pounding with one hand and stirring with the other, bruise the green papaya until it picks up all the flavorings and seasonings. Taste and adjust as needed with more fish sauce, lime juice or palm sugar to the desired flavor combination. Ideally, for a Thai, the salad should be very hot and sour with only a light sweetness at the back of the tongue.
Add the tomato pieces at the end, stir and bruise lightly to blend in with the rest of the salad. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with peanuts.
Serves 6 with a side plate of raw vegetables, as desired, in a multi-course family-style meal.
Notes and Pointers
Green papaya has a very mild, almost bland, taste, but it is the medium through which robust flavor ingredients take body and form. It picks up the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors, giving them a unique crisp and chewy texture unlike that of any other vegetable. When made into salad, you wouldn't know that it was mild and timid; you remember it only as bold and spicy.
Unripe papayas are readily available in various sizes and shapes during the summer at many Asian markets. Select one that is very firm with shiny green peel suggesting that it is as freshly picked as possible. Any very firm unripe green papaya can be used for the recipe, ranging from the small Hawaiian papaya to the huge Mexican variety. The important thing is that it should be unripe - the flesh still light green, almost white, in color after it is peeled. Select the firmest one you can find. Even green fruits will eventually ripen and turn soft if allowed to sit around for some time.
There are many ways to make green papaya salads, with varying degrees of hotness, sourness and sweetness. The hottest salads are probably made in northeastern Thailand and Laos where they are eaten with barbecued chicken and steamed white sticky rice as a staple food of the populace. There, the salads are made by bruising julienned green papaya with garlic and very hot bird peppers in a large clay mortar with a wooden pestle, then seasoning with lime juice, fish sauce and other flavorings.
*Because the Thai language has it's own script, there are different ways of transliterating Thai into English. The more phonetically correct version is Som Dtam; the more usual spelling is Som Tam. See A Note on Thai Pronunciation and Spelling.
See Also: Peanuts and Thai Cooking.