Before living in Bangkok, I was only familiar with the typical Thai dishes that most tourists are acquainted with, like phat thai and tomyam, but somtam (ส้มตำ) is now one of my favourites. [Side note: Even the pineapple fried rice that many Singaporeans like—and associated as Thai food—isn’t popular in Thailand or with the Thais themselves.] Many expats I know don’t seem to take to the taste of somtam very much and seldom venture beyond the classic Thai dishes that they like. Perhaps it takes a couple of tries to appreciate somtam, but I’m certainly addicted to somtam.
Somtam comes in many variations depending on the region and personal preferences. In Isaan, or northeastern Thailand, where somtam is often called tam bak hung [picture below], plaa raa (fermented fish sauce)—no problem for me in small doses but often an acquired taste for many others—is often added in a papaya salad. The central Thai version often sees the addition of items such as salted egg, grilled pork collar or plaa haeng (ikan bilis, or dried anchovies).
I’ve been wanting to make somtam for the longest time and the recent purchase of a mortar and pestle has finally made it possible. Here’s a glimpse of some of the basic ingredients needed to make a somtam. A ceramic mortar and wooden pestle is a must!
*Julienning the Thai way (from Chef McDang’s The Principles of Thai Cookery): Using a sharp knife, chop into its flesh many, many times to create parallel grooves. To get the julienned pieces, you merely slice across the grooves in layers and the julienned flesh will rain into your bowl.
It must be noted that carrot, which is commonly included in somtam by vendors, is only a recent addition to Thai cuisine. A traditional somtam recipe doesn’t call for carrots although I like to include them to add more colors to the dish. Here’s a glimpse of my working table when I’ve gotten the ingredients ready.
Somtam, or Thai papaya salad
Ingredients (Serves 3-4)
* 3 cloves garlic
* 3 Thai bird’s eye chillies (more if you prefer it spicy)
* 1 tbsp palm sugar
* 3 tbsp fish sauce
* 1 tbsp lime juice
* 1/4 cup long beans, sliced to 2 inches long
* 2 cherry tomatoes, sliced into quarters
* 1 cup green papaya, julienned
* 1/2 cup carrot, julienned (optional)
* roasted peanuts
* dried shrimp
1. Pound garlic and chillies into a smooth paste. The longer you pound, the spicier it will be as the chilli seeds are released.
2. Add long beans and tomatoes, and pound until they’re lightly bruised. Add the papaya strands and pound some more.
3. Season the mixture with palm sugar, fish sauce and lime, pounding it until everything is well-blended. A big spoon will be useful for folding in the loose strands and scraping them down the sides of the mortar. Give it a taste—it should be in equal parts sweet, sour and salty—and season with the appropriate ingredient until the preferred taste is achieved.
4. Add peanuts and dried shrimp, and give the mixture a quick, light pound.
5. Serve onto a plate, with accompanying vegetables such as cabbage, long beans and cucumbers.