Som Tam - Thai Green Papaya Salad
Som tam is my all-time favourite salad, whether it's for lunch or dinner or even a snack! I will have a Thai green papaya salad every week, without fail! And even if you’ve never visited Thailand before, I’m sure you have heard of som tam – it’s one of the most famous Thai salads. I remember growing up eating som tam every day when I was a child, I used to sit in the kitchen next to my mother and learn how to hold the papaya in one hand while vigorously cutting and shredding it with a large sharp knife held in the other hand. Somewhat dangerous doing that as a child but now there’s other safer methods...a grater!
Som tam (ส้มตำ) is one of the most commonly available and most popular dishes in all of Thailand. Originating in the northeastern region of Thailand (Isaan), bordering the country of Laos, this dish is a staple for the entire area. Nowadays, you’ll now find green papaya salad everywhere throughout Thailand, as well as on just about every street corner in the cities. This Thai salad features young green papaya in a spicy dressing. The multiple layers of flavours of sweet, sour and spiciness from this salad will explode in your mouth. It really does deliver on everything!
Before we jump into the cooking method for this Thai green papaya salad, I just want to talk about the key ingredients. First of all, you’ll need green papaya. When you think of papaya, you may be thinking of the juicy orange coloured fruit with black seeds in the centre that is extremely sweet. Well, green papayas are picked at their unripe stage before turning into that delicious fruit, so they are hard and green with a completely different taste, one that is quite neutral in flavour.
One of the main ingredients in the dressing is palm sugar. Sugar, especially palm sugar, is key for seasoning in Thai cuisine and it does taste different to other types of sugars. Palm sugar in this recipe will balance out the sourness of the fresh lime juice in the dressing. You can find palm sugar in speciality food stores or in Asian supermarkets. If you can’t find any, using light brown sugar is the best alternative.
More ingredients used for seasoning are fish sauce, lime juice, chillies, garlic and if you want to go for a full traditional Thai mix, then shrimp paste too! The vegetables for this salad other than green papaya are carrots, tomatoes and green beans. You can also use cucumber or swede. Roasted peanuts are very popular in som tam for added crunchy textures, other popular extras in Thailand are dried shrimp and Fried Anchovies!
How to Make Som Tam
In this recipe for Thai green papaya salad, I will show you how to make an authentic version of som tam in the traditional method using a pestle and mortar. Preparation is easy, simply grate the young papaya and carrot into strands and chop green beans into thirds. Using a pestle and mortar, crush chillies and garlic until flat and then add palm sugar, fish sauce and shrimp paste (optional). Mix and pound the dressing, making sure the palm sugar gets fully dissolved into the liquid.
Then squeeze fresh lime juice into a small bowl and start to add in a few tablespoons of juice. Use about 3 or 4 spoons, to begin with and then taste the dressing. Adjust seasoning to taste, you want the dressing to be spicy, sweet, salty with a slight sour element. Once the dressing is perfect, it’s time to add in the vegetables. First, add the tomatoes and green beans, and lightly pound with the pestle.
TIP: If you can have a small pestle and mortar, you can transfer the dressing into a large mixing bowl to finish making the salad.
Then add green papaya and carrots, again gently pound together, I like to also spoon to help gently mix into the dressing. Finish off by adding in some roasted peanuts and that’s it, you made a delicious authentic som tam! Serve up with more fresh vegetables such as lettuce, cucumber or Thai aubergines. Accompany this salad with steamed sticky rice, perfect to soak up all the dressing!
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