Som Tam – Green Papaya Salad

Spicy Green Papaya Salad (som tum or som tam) is a popular dish from the North Eastern part of Thailand (the largely rural Isan region) that combines spicy, sour and sweet flavours to make a classic dish. It is often served alongside barbecue or grilled chicken and a portion of sticky rice. See also the glossary entry for Green Papaya Salad and Tam Mak Hoong – Spicy Lao Green Papaya Salad.

Som Tam - Green Papaya Salad
Cuisine: Thai
Recipe type: Salad
  • 12 chillies, each cut into 3-4 segments
  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled and cut each into 2-3 pieces
  • 2 tablespoons small dried shrimp
  • 4 cups unripe green papaya, peeled, julienned in strips 5 - 7cm long and 3mm thick
  • 1 cup green beans, cut into 4cm long segments
  • 1 medium carrot, julienned (optional)
  • ¼ cup tamarind juice
  • juice of 2-3 limes, to taste
  • 2½ tablespoons fish sauce, to taste
  • 2½ tablespoons palm sugar, dissolved with 1 tablespoon water into a thick syrup (use as needed)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ¼ cup chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
  1. Prepare the ingredients as indicated. Make tamarind juice by starting with 1 tablespoon compressed tamarind in ½ cup of warm water. Work the tamarind with your fingers to dissolve the soft fruit; gather up remaining undissolved pulp, squeeze to extract juice and discard. Add more tamarind or water as necessary to make ¼ cup of concentrate (make to the consistency of fruit juice).
  2. Divide the ingredients into two batches and make each batch as follows. Using a large mortar and pestle, pound the garlic and chillies to a paste. Add the dried shrimp and beans and pound to bruise. Follow with the green papaya and carrot. Stir well with a spoon and pound to bruise the vegetables so that they absorb the heat and flavour of the chillies and garlic.
  3. Add the tamarind and lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar. Stir and pound a bit more to blend the vegetables with the flavourings and seasonings. Taste and adjust flavours to the desired hot-sour-sweet-and-salty combination. Then add the tomato pieces, stir and bruise lightly to blend in with the rest of the salad. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with peanuts.
Green papaya has a very mild, almost bland, taste, but it is the medium through which robust flavour ingredients take body and form. It picks up the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours, giving them a unique crisp and chewy texture unlike that of any other vegetable. When made into salad, you wouldn't know that it was mild and timid; you remember it only as bold and spicy.

Unripe papayas are readily available in various sizes and shapes during the summer at many Asian markets. Select one that is very firm with shiny green peel suggesting that it is as freshly picked as possible. Even green fruits will eventually ripen and turn soft if allowed to sit around for some time.

There are many ways to make green papaya salads, with varying degrees of hotness, sourness and sweetness. The hottest salads are probably made in northeastern Thailand and Laos where they are eaten with barbecued chicken and sticky rice as a staple food of the populace. There the salads are made by bruising julienned green papaya with garlic and very hot bird peppers in a large clay mortar with a wooden pestle, then seasoning with lime juice, fish sauce and other flavourings.

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