Hail to this renowned salad in all its glory. Holder of the quintessential flavours of Thai cuisine. We as travelers and locals alike bow down to you… or at least I do. As you may be able to tell I quite like som tam. I see it on nearly every menu, lots of street stalls, many tables and I can’t imagine a market without a lady pounding the mortar and pestle making it fresh for her patrons. It’s all over and with good reason.
The base is unripe papaya or green papaya shredded giving it a crisp bite, a fresh bitterness. Already a good start. Muddled with garlic, chilies, grape tomatoes and yardlong beans, this is generally the basics of som tam. The dressing gives it everything else it needs. Sour lime, salty fish sauce, sweet sweet palm sugar and the spicy factor obviously from the chili and as much as you desire (I’ve had tastes of a Thai’s som tam and it blew me away… instant sweats). This all by itself is simply amazing and is a definite must try and I assume if you’ve been to the Land of Smiles then you’ve had one or two tastings.
But why stop there. With so many variations to this masterpiece, there is no reason to become bored of it. Dried shrimp or cooked shrimp is probably the most common on a typical falang style menu, but it can get a whole lot more interesting than this. Starting simple, salted egg is good one to start with, but salted paddy crab (found in the rice paddies) lightly crushed into the salad add a nice crunch with the soft shell and salty subtle crab flavour. Pickled pork sausage is a variation I’ve only seen once, along with crispy pork skin, but highly recommend both if you ever come across them as well. Getting a little funkier in all ways of the word is the addition of ‘pla ra’ or fermented fish paste. To most foreigners this flavour is too strong or they are put off by the smell. While the taste and aroma are quite strong it adds a whole new dimension to the dish. Like most additions there’s a salty component as well as umami. It’s worth at least one try if you are hesitant. It could open up a whole new world. One I’ve have yet to try, but have seen is the addition of blood cockles. These are merely the ones I know about thus far, but I’m sure I’m missing many. The possibilities seem endless. Either way, it’s a salad of the people and worth delving into a plate or five.
If you’ve had another variation I’ve yet to try, please let me know below and I’ll be on my way!