Som Tam: A Tiny Kitchen Adventure
Som tam is the intensely flavorful green papaya salad made-to-order at street-side stalls in northeastern Thailand. Closer to home, you can find it on the menu at most Thai eateries, and occasionally at those specializing in Vietnamese or Laotian/Hmong foods.
My first taste of som tam was five or so years ago at a market in St. Paul, Minnesota, the sleepy sister city of Minneapolis. (Not as curious a place to encounter an authentic version when you learn that the Twin Cities are home to one of the largest populations of southeast Asian immigrants and refugees in the country.) My salad was prepared to-order in the traditional very large clay mortar with a wooden pestle practically the size of a baseball bat used to bash and mash shreds of unripe green papaya with snake (green) beans, chunks of tomato, peanuts, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind, fresh chilli peppers, and the occasional sprinkling of tiny dried shrimp.
When the young woman stopped her mashing to ask my preferred level of heat, I responded something along the lines of “make me sweat a little.” Her look insinuated this might be a mistake, but I nodded to confirm my decision — one that seemed less wise as a mess of chillies went tumbling into the mortar. No going back now. We finished our conversation about her returning home to Vietnam over the summer, and she handed me the salad in a large styrofoam cup.
The initial bite was fierce in the best possible way. She certainly dialed it up with those chillies, but it wasn’t so overwhelming that I couldn’t enjoy the contrasting flavors and textures. It’s an impressive feat, and her som tam was enough for me to wish for a mountain of frequent flier miles and an unexpired passport. It immediately became one of my “must-order foods”: if it’s on the menu, I’m ordering it. Purely for research and comparison purposes, of course.
As someone who loves to experiment in the kitchen, and will likely never make it to southeast Asia for a truly authentic version of som tam, I was more than eager to try my own hand at home.
(Interesting to note: “som tam” translates from Thai to “sour pounded.”)
I own a fair number of unique kitchen tools, but a monstrous mortar and pestle is not one of them. And the traditional method of shredding the papaya by essentially whacking and scraping it with a cleaver isn’t something I’m ready to attempt quite yet.
I do, however, have a large bowl, and discovered through trial and error over the years that the bottom of a flat-ended rolling pin, meat mallet, large muddler, or sturdy glass jar are decent for the bashing. As for shredding, the julienne blade on a food processor makes for quick work, and ensures that I keep my fingers fully intact.
What’s in it for me?
As with all cuisines, traditional Asian and Thai dishes span from rib-sticking and greasy to light and healthy. Som tam is definitely a nutritious option, given its simple preparation and that the ingredients list is almost entirely fresh produce.
Did you know that papaya — raw or ripe — is full of essential nutrients and powerful enzymes? At only 39 calories per 100 g (about 3.5 oz), it promotes skin, eye, digestive and joint health, may protect from heart diseases by improving blood pressure, and boosts your immune system. Papayas are also very good sources of vitamins C and A, as well as folate, fiber, magnesium and potassium, making it a healthy choice all around, especially for women who are planning to become or are currently pregnant.
The recipe written here is a far distant cousin to what I imagine you’ll find from those street vendors in Thailand, but it more than satisfies my craving! Delightfully crisp and crunchy, sour, tart, salty and faintly sweet, and all at once cooling and spicy hot. A special balance that southeast Asian dishes master so perfectly.
You can serve it as a side or starter, if you like. On warm evenings we find ourselves enjoying larger portions for a light and healthy supper, heavy on the garden-grown herbs with a couple extra spoons of roasted peanuts, a bit of brown rice or glass noodles, and several lime wedges for the table and our frosty beers.
Tell me… Are you spicy or mild? Ever tried som tam?
- 1 medium-large green, unripe papaya, ends trimmed, peeled and seeded (see HGN Notes)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 to 2 tsp Sambal Oelek chilli paste, or 1 to 2 seeded and finely minced Thai chillies, depending on your heat tolerance
- 1 large shallot, coarsely chopped
- 5 Tbs fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 1 tsp Turbinado, coconut or light brown sugar
- 4 to 5 Chinese long beans, or 20 green beans, cut into 1/2-inch lengths
- 1 large beefsteak or 2 large roma tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped (you can substitute about 6 cherry tomatoes, halved -- no need to seed these)
- 2 Tbs chopped roasted, unsalted peanuts
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh green or Thai purple basil leaves
- Cut the papaya into fine shreds with the grater disk of a food processor, a julienne-bladed mandoline, julienne peeler, or carefully by hand with a sharp knife. This should yield about 4 cups. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, pound the garlic, chilli paste/chillies and shallot into a paste with the flat-ended implement of your choosing (e.g., mallet, muddler, rolling pin, jar, or large pestle if you have one). Pour in the lime juice, fish sauce, and the sugar (if using), and mix together with the paste using a large spoon. Add the green beans, and pound until they're well-bruised and beginning to break down. Add the tomatoes and about 1/3 of the papaya shreds, and pound another several times. Add the remaining papaya, toss to coat, and refrigerate 30 minutes to 2 hours.
- Remove the bowl from the refrigerator, and let come up to room temperature on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes (don't skip this step -- it brings out the flavors more!). Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed with a dash more fish sauce (saltiness), lime juice (tartness), chilli paste/fresh chillies (heat), and/or sugar (balance too much heat).
- Just prior to bringing the bowl to the table or plating individual portions, sprinkle chopped peanuts and herbs over top of the salad, and lightly toss. Serve immediately.
Pairing Ideas: We like a Helles or Pale Ale, and could also imagine an IPA working well. If you feel like wine instead, go for an off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc/Vouvray.
+ If vegetarian/vegan, you can try this recipe for homemade "fish" sauce: http://vegnews.com/articles/page.do?pageId=1971&catId=11.
+ If gluten-free, substitute tamari for the soy sauce in the above recipe, but always double-check the label to ensure the brand you choose is actually GF.
Recipe adapted very loosely from The VB6 Cookbook by Mark Bittman.
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