The Som Tum Thai Story

Bowl of Som Tam Thai

All About the Famous Spicy Green Papaya Salad

Som Tum (ส้มตำ) or ‘Som Tam’ depending on how you want to spell it in English, is a very popular spicy salad in Thailand. It has it’s origins in Laos and usually uses green, unripe, papaya, as it’s base ingredient. 

However there are a multitude of variations on how som tum can be made.  It’s a dish that has been widely adapted since gaining popularity in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand in the 1950s and 60s.

Where Does Som Tum Originate?

Green papaya salad originated in Laos. Chilli and papaya were brought to the country by Portuguese traders. And by the mid 1800’s both were widely used in Laotian cuisine. 

This type of food also spread into Isaan, in the northeast of Thailand, an area with strong cultural links to Laos. Back then people didn’t travel for work or take holidays and so food was very localized.  What was popular in one part of the country could be unheard of in another. 

From the 1950s onwards that began to change.  At first with labourers coming to work in Bangkok.  Family members set up food carts and stalls near construction sites and in the areas where they were living. 

This was followed by the Vietnam war. In the aftermath thousands of Laotian refugees flooded into Thailand and many ended up looking for work in Bangkok. Access was easy thanks to a new road, the ‘Friendship Highway’, built by the American army built to facilitate troop movements between Bangkok and the northeast of Thailand.   This was followed by the economic boom in the 1980s, when more migrant workers from the northeast came to Bangkok where work was plentiful.

Migration led to a huge demand for traditional dishes from Laos and the northeast of Thailand.  And the city folk from Bangkok even started to enjoy super spicy food.  By the late  1980s Thailand was becoming well known as an Asian tiger economy, exporting goods around the world.  And tourism was also starting to take off in a big way. 

Promoting Thai food to the outside world was a prominent government policy and som tum was chosen as a typical northeastern dish to promote.  However, this was a toned down variation.   Original, Laos and Isaan som tum was spicier, less sweet and included protein in the form of fermented fish, crabs and even insects.  

The toned down, more tourist friendly version, which is known as ‘Som Tum Thai‘ is what you will get if you order som tum in most restaurants in Thailand. However, it is still possible to find numerous variations which are more authentic or adventurous. 

Different Types of Som Tum

Whilst som tum is available across Thailand, it isn’t usually thought of as a restaurant dish.  It’s a quick lunch from a roadside vendor.  Or the ideal way to feed a lot of people and keep everyone happy.  A few plates of som tum, some fried chicken and a beer or coke is quintessential Thai fast food. 

But there are some restaurants that specialise only in som tum.  It’s at one of these where you can try literally dozens of different variations. Here are some of the most popular including my favourites. 

People from the northeast of Thailand will often skip the blander som tum Thai and go for far more pungent variations such as ‘som tum pu‘  – with fermented black crabs or ‘som tum pla ra‘ with fermented fish. 

Or, with both the fish and the crabs, it’s ‘som tum bu pla ra‘.  These are eye-wateringly spicy and are definitely an acquired taste.  The smell alone, plus the fact that the crabs are whole – legs, shell, everything – is enough to put most people off trying.  

If you want some seafood in your som tum, a far more palatable version would be ‘som tum Thai goong sot‘.  This is the regular som tum Thai but with the addition of some freshly cooked prawns.  Mmmmmm, delicious.  :-)

Corn on the cob is a popular snack on roadside stalls in Thailand, and so quite a few som tum vendors offer the option of having ‘som tum capote‘.   This is the same as som tum Thai but with the papaya switched for freshly steamed sweetcorn. 

Likewise at certain times of year, green mango is often substituted for green papaya, to make ‘som tum ma muang‘.  They have very similar textures but the mango has a little more of its own flavour. 

Something I advise visitors to Thailand to try is ‘som tum polamai‘.  This is made with diced fruit instead of papaya.  It often includes fruits such as dragon fruit, melon, watermelon, grapes, apple and guava.  So you get the sweet fruit mixed with spicy, sour lime juice.  It sounds a bit of a weird combination, but is excellent.  

It’s also possible to switch the papaya for noodles.  There are a lot of different types of noodles and all can be used to carb load your som tum.  The photo below is one of my favourites.  This is a type of som tum made with fried yellow noodles with seafood.  A huge plate, so is best shared between two people. 

This from a restaurant in Chanthaburi , ‘Som Tum Jae Rat‘ ( ส้มตำเจ๊รัตน์ ).  It’s famed for som tum variations and the quality of fried chicken and pork that diners like to order to accompany it. 

Plate of som tam fried noodle seafood

How to Make Som Tam Thai?

The most popular version, Som Tum Thai, uses grated raw papaya, cherry tomatoes, long green beans, roasted peanuts, small dried shrimps, fresh chilli and garlic.

It’s a very quick dish to make as the ingredients are tossed into a mortar and then seasoned with a mix of lime juice, tamarind juice, fish sauce and palm sugar.  A pestle is then used to pound the ingredients and mix in the flavours. 

How much of each ingredient depends on the vendor and/or the buyer.  The art is in the balancing of the flavours.  The vendor will continuously dip a spoon into the mixture to taste it, adding extra sugar, lime juice or fish sauce until it’s just right.  Buyers will also often have specific requests, wanting extra chilli, more sugar, less tamarind, substituting papaya for sweetcorn for example. 

How Do You Eat Thai Papaya Salad?

You can eat som tum by itself but most people will also enjoy it with sticky rice and some grilled pork or fried chicken. 

The sticky rice is eaten by hand.  Take a small ball and use it to dunk in the juice or to cool your mouth if it’s too spicy.  Any som tum stall will also have a chicken or pork stall near by.  As they compliment each other perfectly. Grab some deep fried chicken, or grilled meat skewers and you’re good to go.

As with virtually all Thai meals, the som tum and side dishes will be shared between diners.  

Is Green Papaya Different From Normal Papaya?

No, it is the same fruit. In the west, Papaya is seen as a sweet fruit which has to be eaten only when it is ripe and the flesh is a luscious deep orangey-red colour. Much the same way as mangoes are eaten in Europe, USA and elsewhere.  Only when they are juicy and, what we are brought up to understand to be ‘ripe’.

But the same fruits can be eaten when they are still green and the flesh still hard. Green papaya is grated and used in som tum.  It doesn’t have a distinct flavour and, if you ate it without knowing what it was, you would never guess that it’s Papaya.

Green mango is a also popular snack, often eaten with a sugar / salt / powdered chilli dip.  Again, there’s only a faint hint on mango flavour and the texture is more akin to a very crunchy apple.  Nothing like that of a juicy, ripe mango. In fact the only time you will see Thais eating ripe mango is in the popular ‘Khao Niaw Ma Muang ‘.  (Sticky rice and mango dessert.)


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