Food carries memories. We all have those moments when a flavor or actually the scent of food brings back a distant memory, making time travel possible if only for a brief moment.
To me ‘Som Tum Thai’ ส้มตำไทย or green papaya salad, does just that. The year is 1997 I’m in Bangkok, I’m hungry and asking Andrea a friend from Austria where should we eat. She says that we should go and get ‘Som Tum’, “gonna get what?” I said, “Som Tum, papaya salad” she replies, “you must’ve had Som Tum before, it’s like the most popular salad and everybody loves it”. Shamefully I had to admit that I never heard of it, but hey this is how amazing those times were, with no Facebook, YouTube nor Instagram and amazing new discoveries that were made every day. It didn’t take too long before I had my first ‘Som Tum’. Who would’ve thought that unripe papaya would be the main ingredient in a salad? I haven’t…
This salad is made in a ‘Pok Pok’ a clay mortar with a wooden pestle. the ‘Tum’ in the name of the salad actually means to pound, so you should think of this as a pounded salad.
Fresh small ‘Kee Nu’ chilies are thrown into the mortar with garlic and smashed by the pestle. Palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, and dried small krill shrimp are added too. Then green papaya shreds, green long beans, tomatoes, and peanuts. The mix is stirred with a spatula and pounded until the vegetables are bruised and well incorporated.
This is a dish with an interesting history. While the common belief is that papaya salad has originated from Laos or Issan, the northeast region of Thailand, some historical facts tell a slightly different story. ‘Khao Mun Som Tum’ is a set of dishes that have been served historically to high-class people of the central region of Thailand. The set included several dishes one of which was papaya salad or pickles known as ‘Som Tum’. An important mention is that some of the main ingredients of papaya salad which have originated in the new world namely papaya, tomato, chili, and peanuts, were available at first to the people of central Thailand the power and trade center and only later made it to distant disconnected areas like Issan.
At some point, however, the people of Issan have embraced the dish and started creating their own versions seasoned with fermented fish ‘Pla Raa’, fermented land crabs. The Issan version had become quite distant from its origin, with a flavor profile to please the Issani taste, namely pungent salty, sour, and unsweetened.
‘Som Tum Thai’ which literally means Thai ‘Som Tum’ has turned full circle when the bold Issan versions have been adjusted to be more palatable to westerners visiting Thailand, by Issani food vendors. Thus making a ‘Thai’ moderated version by the people of Issan containing sugar and fish sauce instead of the more pungent ‘Pla Raa’.
‘Som Tum’ is served with sticky rice, the staple grain of Issan, which is perfect for soaking in the sauce and for toning down the heat.
For this plant-based version, I’m replacing fish sauce with Thai light soy. It should taste salty, sweet, and sour in the background, and fairly spicy.
Ingredients and preparations
- Shredded green papaya
- Yardlong beans cut into 2-inch pieces
- Cherry tomatoes
- Roasted peanuts
- Thai Makeua Pro eggplant (optional)
- The peel of the limes squeezed to make the sauce
- 2-5 ‘KeeNu’ chilies
- Coconut sugar
- Lime juice
- Light soy sauce
1.Roast or deep fry the peanuts and place on a paper towel to let excess oil drain. Peel and shred the green papaya. Cut the beans.
2.Crush the chilies and garlic in the mortar. Add and lightly pound some of the peanuts to release their fragrance. Add coconut sugar lime juice, soy, and some of the tomatoes, pound lightly to form the sauce. Give it a taste, it should be quite salty to compensate for the bland papaya, sweet and sour.
3.Add the shredded papaya, beans, and eggplant. pound and stir thoroughly to coat the vegetables with the sauce. Add the rest of the tomatoes and the peanuts. Give it all another stir to spread ingredients evenly and transfer to a serving plate.