Authentic Spicy Thai Green Papaya Salad, Som TamPosted: August 30, 2013
I just came back from a trip where I was eating like I had just returned from boot camp. Of course, I’m not a young chick anymore, so a common thing happened. I gained weight. So now I’m on a diet.
I have my simple trick to help me maintain my weight. Wait, why would little me have to maintain my weight, you might ask? Well, I’m a woman who owns quite a bit of clothing, just like most other women my age, except that my clothes are a special size. For a woman who needs alterations done to fit in size petite zero, and still wants to look fashionable, then clothing items are treasures you cannot lose to the excess fat on your body.
So, my simple trick is weigh myself daily at the same time (in the morning right after, errrr…the classic elimination of yesterday’s foods in my body). This way I know right away if my weight is over the limit where I can fit in my clothes. If so, what do I do? Eat less and exercise more. Simple, right? I am someone who can’t do weird diet programs such as low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, sugar-free, Paleo, South Beach, etc… I love to eat too much. I can’t sacrifice, because I want full flavors. I only live once, you know. I have to live like I really mean it, especially with food.
If I gain 2 or 3 pounds, it might sound like too little to care about, but it’s equal to about 5 or 6 pounds in regular size 2 to size 6 women or 10 pounds or more in most men (who normally claim that they can poop that out the next day! Sorry I never had a 2 lb. poop in my life.) After this trip, I will just eat more vegetables, smaller portions, increase the number of meals, and a eat very, very light dinner, and exercise more for a week or two. Then I should be back to my normal weight and get to eat whatever I want again (with regular exercise, of course).
I also do not sacrifice the taste for anything. If the food doesn’t taste good, I don’t eat it. People around me usually don’t see me munching on just a stick of celery or carrots. I am not in any way, shape or form a rabbit in disguise. I also don’t cut down on the number of meals. I actually increase it but lessen the portion and lower the amount of calories in each meal by adding more fiber.
During my “diet” time, Som Tam, or spicy raw green papaya salad, finds its way onto my dinner table quite often. It’s really light, vegetables with some protein and very little fat, but full of flavor. Also, Som Tam, the Thai variation, was listed at number 46 on “World’s 50 best foods” compiled by CNN Travel in 2011.
Am I raising your curiosity yet? What’s Som Tam? It’s a North Eastern (Issan) Thai dish made with raw green papaya, garlic, tomatoes, yardlong beans or Chinese long beans , fish sauce, lime juice, coconut palm sugar, peanuts and bird’s eye chilies. There is some type of protein in the Som Tam too, which we will discuss later.
Som Tam is claimed to have originated in Laos, of where it was called Tam Som or Tam Mak Hoong. It’s still a discussion among Laotian, Vietnamese (called Goi Du Du) and Cambodian (called Bok I’hong) about who made Som Tam first. The Thais won’t even try to stake a claim with them, as we would rather spend time eating Som Tam and perfecting it and expanding it to many variations.
I’ve seen some recipes on the internet. Several famous and not so famous chefs have attempted to make this dish. Oh my gosh, I was rolling on the floor laughing when I saw their recipes. They managed to get the dish to LOOK like Som Tam all right, but the taste…muahhahahaha…far from it, dude! Ok let’s trash their recipes for fun. It will also serve as an OH NO NO NO, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DO THIS!! warning.
A famous food magazine not only “halved crosswise” the Chinese long beans but also COOKED them…poor beans…got abused along with the garlic cloves that were supposed to be “minced”…hahaha…NO, I’m not done yet because they also put “CILANTRO” and “GREEN ONION” in the Som Tam. Well, I would kindly suggest that the editor should send the writer to a nearby Thai restaurant and ask them to make the dish for her to see. So, she doesn’t have to guess and make herself a laughing stock and also drag the editor into the pool. If the editor can’t find any native Southeast Asian writer to create the recipe for this dish, research more, dear. This is really discrediting to the magazine.
Next, a famous chef “julienned” the green papaya, mixed lemon juice with the lime juice (What’s for?…Hello, we don’t grow lemons in the region, dude!) This ignorant master chef not only added “RED PEPPER FLAKES” and “ROUGHLY CHOPPED CILANTRO LEAVES” to his Som Tam, but he also “COOKED THE STRING BEANS” too…Adding cilantro doesn’t make the dish any “Thai-er”, you know (but he obviously doesn’t). He probably visited Thailand but never paid attention to HOW this dish was made. Go back to your restaurant empire–the steak, the grill, whatever your flaying, or even your TV show, slap your “universal sauce” on any meat, and continue to over-charge for the meal–and leave the Som Tam alone, would be my recommendation!
The grossest of them all–made me almost barf just reading the recipe–is a famous “know-it-all” site that I can conclude knows almost nothing about cooking except how to get listed high on search engines. The recipe contained BEAN SPROUTS, SPRING ONIONS (cut in long matchstick-like strips…hahaha), BASIL LEAVES, CORIANDER, SHRIMP PASTE, and HONEY. Holy f***ing s***! They even put green beans as an optional ingredient. I lost my words, busy barfing. I would suggest taking down the whole site. The writer of this recipe claimed to “fall in love” with Thai food while traveling throughout Thailand ten years ago. She might have to go back and REALLY LEARN THAI COOKING because her guesswork is very far off, soooooo far, waaaaaay out in the ocean, not even on land…
These are the examples of ignorant people trying to show off the sawdust in between their ears, but the readers of my blog won’t be deceived. First of all, let’s look at what the Thai name means. Som=sour taste, and Tam=mush, something usually done by using a mortar and pestle. Can you start to guess how the REAL Som Tam is made?
I learned how to make Som Tam from my nanny who came from Mahasarakham, a Thai province in Northeastern Thailand. It’s probably one of the very first dishes I made by myself because it doesn’t involve any fire to cook any of the ingredients. I’m sure I made my first “krog”, (which literally means “mortar”, that’s how Thai people call a unit or serving of Som Tam in Thailand) before I even turned ten.
There are several different types of Som Tam in Thailand these days. There used to be only Tam Thai, (or Som Tam Thai), which is sweeter, less spicy and contains a lot of optional stuff, and Tam Pu, (or Som Tam Pu Khem), which contains only the basic ingredients. These days Som Tam has many more variations. Let me give you the basic one first and we will discuss the varieties later.
Raw green papaya (If you see a hint of yellow or orange, don’t buy it)
Chinese long beans
Garlic (Some people leave this as optional but I think it’s required. You can leave your date as an option, but not the garlic in Som Tam)
Chilies (This could be a required ingredient to most, but I have to make it optional for the well-being of my stomach!)
Cooked fresh shrimp
Brined crabs (This is not the marine crab. It’s rice field black crab.)
There are so many other optional ingredients these days I can’t keep up with all of them, but I’m sure scallions and cilantro are not on the list.
1) You need to cut the papaya into small strands. You can try to “julienne” it…haha—it’s not only hard but also slippery…so I do it this way:
1.1) Peel off the green skin and wash.
1.2) Hold the papaya in your hand. If you are a righty, hold it with your left and hold the knife in your right. Do the opposite for a lefty.
1.3) Chop the papaya lengthwise. Don’t go too deep. This is a reverse julienne. You cut lengthwise first and slice later. Chop repeatedly in an area about 2” wide.
1.4) Slice right underneath the lengthwise cuts you just made about 1/4” thick. The papaya should comes out in strands, just like you julienned it, but shouldn’t be all perfectly equal. I will tell you why later. Keep reading!
1.5) Chop some more and slice some more until you get enough green papaya shredded. I approximate about full one cup for each person.
This is my favorite prep method. The papaya strands come out uneven and that creates the texture of Som Tam that I like. We will mush these papaya later with a mortar and pestle so the thin strands will get soft while the thicker strands stay crunchy because the pestle can’t soften them as much.
There are other methods. You could use a cheese shredder (with bigger holes, at least 1/4”-3/8” wide, not the tiny ones) or a julienne peeler, to shred the papaya. Another way is to buy pre-shredded papaya from the Asian market. I don’t like this as much, since the strands are usually all cut equal in size and not as crunchy, but I use this method when I don’t have a lot of time.
2) Cut the long beans to 1” – 2” length, discarding the ends. You need about a handful in each “krog”.
3) Slice the tomatoes in half, or quarter them if you use a big tomatoes.
Variations of Som Tam
Here they come! These vary based on the ingredients and also the order in which they go into the mortar. We have very many varieties, but foreigners (fa-rang) only know a few due to the intensity of the ingredients involved in the others. I have to admit that I probably don’t know all of them myself, blaming the lack of knowledge on my town of origin, Bangkok. I only know the fancy ones they serve in Bangkok. I am missing out on the local favorites (containing weird stuff, of course, which I always like!)
Som Tam Thai: This has the basic ingredients + roasted peanuts + palm sugar + dried shrimp. The super fancy Som Tam Thai these days also has fresh shrimp, too. This one won the popular vote among the fa-rang and the city people both, and also is the one mentioned in CNN World’s 50 best foods.
Som Tam Pu: This is the basic + brined black crabs and sometimes palm sugar. Pu=crab, so if you see “pu” or “poo” in any Thai dish’s name, or Thai people’s nickname, don’t be alarmed. No scatology is involved.
Som Tam Thai sai Pu: Som Tam Thai + brined crabs. (sai=put)
Som Tam Pu Pla Ra: The basic + brined crabs (pu)+ pickled fermented fish (pla ra). This was considered Issan fancy Som Tam by my nanny. She said in her home town she could only put one thing or the other, not both. She also thought Bangkok Som Tam (Som Tam Thai) was too elaborate.
Som Tam Lao: It’s the basic, minus tomatoes, + the fermented fish (Pla Ra). This is the original one that my nanny taught me, but these days it is the basic + Makok and maybe + Thai eggplant, quite fancy!
Tam Sua: Som Tam Lao + Kanom Jeen (rice noodles)
Som Tam Khai Khem: Som Tam Thai + salted eggs. Khai=egg, Khem=salty
Som Tam Mooh Grob: Som Tam Thai + Crispy pork. Mooh=pork, Grob=crispy
Som Tam Pu Ma: It’s Som Tam Thai + Blue crab. Pu=crab, Ma=horse, but Pu Ma=Blue Crab (just to confuse those of you who think you already know Thai from my blog…LOL)
I’m exhausted–so many varieties! When did this simple dish turn so fancy? Oh…and I hope you know that there are fresh bird’s eye chilies or Thai chilies (lots of them) in EVERY Som Tam, right?
Before we start, you need to have a mortar and pestle. Which kind? The clay or terracotta mortar with wooden pestle is the best, but if you already have a stone mortar, you can use that. Just remember, if you are going to use a stone mortar, do not pound so hard on your green papaya or it will be too soft.
Method for Som Tam Thai
4) Put peeled garlic cloves in the mortar and mush them with the pestle. (That’s minced garlic, people, so squish them well…ROFLMAO) If you want it really spicy, add the chili now and pound it really hard.
5) Add dried shrimp and pound on them until they break into smaller pieces.
6) Add a handful of long beans and of course pound on them like they’re a thief who’s trying to rob you. This is how we get the long beans to split in the middle and look bruised, just like you carefully “halved them crosswise” and even “cooked” them…muahhahahaha…
7) Tomatoes are going to get the abuse this time, but don’t pound on them too hard…oops…too late! They already splattered in your face, didn’t they? I used about 1/4 cup of cut tomatoes, but you may adjust it to your liking.
8) Squeeze the limes (no lemons), add the palm sugar and use your pestle to mix the palm sugar into the juice from the tomatoes and limes. I used the whole lime, but my lime was small. I approximate about 2 tablespoons of juice and one teaspoon of palm sugar.
9) Add a handful of shredded papaya (may be 3/4 cup, saving 1/4 cup to add later) and fish sauce. I can’t tell you how much fish sauce; you have to taste it. Approximately 2 tablespoons, I think.
Look at the picture. I use a spoon to dig the stuff out of the bottom of the mortar and flip it to the top, pound on it a bit and dig again. I continue to do the dig and pound, dig and pound until everything is mixed well.
10) TASTE IT! (This is by far the most important step)
11) Adjust the taste to your preference. Then you add the rest of the papaya (the 1/4 cup that you saved). Pound on it and mix it a little more. Why don’t I add all the papaya at first? I like texture. I want my variety of crunchiness in the papaya, some soft and some crunchy.
If you want some chili flavor but don’t want your Som Tam too hot, this is the time you add the chili pod and crack it lightly.
12) Add roasted peanuts. I shouldn’t have to tell you to pound on them, right? To get them to crack a little. (Or you could also “roughly chop” them…haha…just like how the famous chef would do!)
Don’t let any cilantro or green onion get near the mortar or I will throw the pestle at you.
Method for Som Tam Pu
Add the salted crab to the mortar after you add papaya. Crack the crab so the salted juice comes out and mixes with all other ingredients.
Method for Som Tam Khai Khem
Add the salted eggs last and taste it again to see if you need to add more lime juice or sugar.
I’ve been living in the US a long time, since way back when farang were still calling this spicy green papaya salad they ate in Thailand “Papaya Pok Pok”. So, in the bad old days, I had a hard time getting ingredients here. What did I do?
Green beans or haricot vert were substituted for Chinese long beans.
Green papaya was replaced with green beans, cucumber, carrots, spaghetti squash, jicama, chayote or broccoli stems.
Indian jaggery sugar or brown sugar was substituted for palm sugar.
And for vegetarians, soy sauce can substitute for fish sauce.
What if you don’t own a mortar and pestle? Then you’ll have to shred the papaya thinner and soak half of it with salt or fish sauce ahead of the time, so that the papaya gets softer. You might have to chop the dried shrimp and mince the garlic before you toss them together like a salad. (I don’t like the result anywhere near as much, as you might expect.)
BTW, you can buy a mortar and pestle online or at Asian grocery stores. They’re inexpensive. templeofthai.com has them in 3 different sizes. The small ones cost less than $20. culinarysupplies.org also carries them in many sizes.
Room for Creativity
Now you know the basics, so if you want to be creative with your Som Tam, go right ahead, as long as you don’t add cilantro and green or regular onion, you should be able to call it Som Tam. If it doesn’t fit the catagory, just change the name to Yum or salad and you won’t piss the Thais off so much!
I got creative with my “Som Tam Khao Pode” here. I replaced the green papaya with corn kernels. I added avocado, and my “pu” is Alaskan king crab! I called it “Horadee California Som Tam” (Horadee=South West).