Thai street food : Som tam (green papaya salad)


Som tam is a dish, synonymous with Thai food although it has variations all over the region. In Vietnam it’s known as goi du du and tam mak hoong in Laos.

the flavours of somtam

the flavours of somtam

It’s a light but punchy salad that works as a side to a lot of Thai cuisine, or as a lunch in it’s own right – it’s origins are disputed between the South-East Asian countries, but is most well known in Thailand, where the Northeastern province of Isaan is known to be its home, it’s Thai home at the least. The ingredients are a who’s who of spicy, sweet and sour which are all pounded together in a mortar and pestle.
Typical ingredients included shredded green papaya, garlic, tomato, lime juice, green beans, fish sauce, dried shrimp peanuts, palm sugar and chilli. The mortar and pestle are known as khrok and saak respectively. These ingredients are ‘typical’ when I make it and eat it in Thailand, It’s how I like it, but there’s no definitive way to make it, no set recipe- everything can be added or subtracted to taste, variations exist.  

To the unknowing, all the ingredients are added to the khrok progressively to create a coleslaw-esque mixture of delicious, fresh, pungent spicy and sour vegetables. A serving is traditionally known by the same name as the mortar – a khrok.

I understand that heat isn’t of singular importance, but I do think it’s better spicy.

Spice level really depends on the individual, to those a little phobic of chilli – and its irritably active ingredient, capsaicin – Som tam is often something to be wary of, but spicy is a subjective term, and new two chilies are alike –  Trying out a new som tam place can be like playing Russian roulette with your tastebuds, and also a complete disappointment

My favourite way to eat som tam is the Isaan way, with sticky rice (khao niao) and barbecued chicken (kai yang) – Another thing I really enjoyed som tam with was smoked catfish.

A lot of places you’ll be able to find variations such as som tam with rice paddie crabs, which have been smashed up in the khrok, or som tam with salted egg.

Som tam with salted egg

som tam with salted egg

A good way to spot a cart or stall that sells som tam is to look for the large khrok! Expect to pay 20-50Baht per serve.

Phrases worth knowing

mai phet – not spicy
phet nit nawy – a little bit spicy.
Phet mak – very spicyMai Sai Prik/goong/tua li song  Khap – no chilli/shrimp/peanut please (khap is only for males, females use ‘khaa’ )
Sai tung – take away  (literally means put in bag)
Pai sed –  when ordering it means the large size, or special – the difference is often around 10 baht on a street cart .
Tow rai? – how much.
Arroy! – delicious  


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