Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Som Tam (Thai Green Papaya Salad)

This is a classic street recipe from North-East Thailand (Isaan) that has become so popular that it you can find it all over Thailand now.

It combines the classic Thai tastes — hot, sweet, salty, sour. It's a textural masterpiece and it has umami like no other. It's also visually impressive — something that is most important from the sales perspective of street food.

It is important to understand that the Thai conception of a "salad" is different from Western expectations. It's just a side dish. It might be topped by "pickled blue crab" or "fried pork". It just acts as a base register.

Note the seamless integration of the entirely New World tomato into the mixture. The reason is clear. It's umami as the CC has explained before.

Seasonings in the Thai conception are a little hard to give precise instructions for. The ingredients are precise enough but the quantities rely on "balance" — something that can only be learned via experience. You keep adding counterbalances until it all makes "sense". This sounds vague but it really is not. It's taking into account the variability in the ingredients that make up the mixture.

(Experienced eaters and makers of most South-Asian street food — Indian, Burmese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino — will probably recognize what the CC is saying a lot easier.)

A very quick note about some of the techniques. You need a mortar and pestle which is easy enough. The long beans must be quite young because they are eaten raw. This is simply not possible where the CC lives so a quick blanching is in order. It's the only way to make them edible. Fidelity to the source can only go so far when practicality drives the truck crashing through the door.


1 small raw papaya

8 long beans (cut into 2" lengths)
16-24 cherry tomatoes

1/3 cup dried shimp
1/3 cup peanuts (roasted)

2-4 Thai green chillies (sliced really thin)

2 cloves garlic
2-3 tbsp. palm sugar (substitute with brown sugar)
4 tbsp. nahm pla (fish sauce)
2 limes


If your beans are young, ignore this. Otherwise blanch them for no more than 60 seconds in boiling water and put them in an ice-cold bath. Drain and set aside.

Make the sauce. The garlic needs to be finely chopped. Add the garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. Taste to make sure it has the right balance. You may need to add more of the palm sugar, fish sauce or lime juice.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves.

The papaya needs to be shredded into thin strips. Either a mandoline or a grater make quick work.

In a mortar and pestle, add the papaya, long beans, shrimp and roasted peanuts. Pound lightly to crush the ingredients just to release some juices and to break up the shrimp and peanuts a bit.

Toss everything together and serve at once.

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