ส้มตำ Som Tam – Thai Green Papaya Salad
Thai cuisine is up next for Asian Food Fest #2 and the contrast between Thai and Japanese food couldn’t be greater. Yet I love them both! For me, Thai food is all about the explosion of flavours albeit with little mouthfuls that go a long way. The prototypical impression many of us have on Thai food is its stong notes on heat and sourish palate profile. Thai cuisine liberally incorporates chili in many of its dishes so one is almost immediately hit by the impact from these little morsels of red firecrackers bursting in one’s mouth. Acridity and astringency introduced take form through the use of Thai green limes and/or tamarind pulp and together, they produce a wave of refreshing sensation against the heat, helping to subdue the latter slightly. Some say that it is really a competition of these two flavours but I choose to think that the amalgamation makes it multi-dimensional. Speaking of multi-dimensional, Thai cuisine is also heavy on the use of fish sauce, much loved for its savory hues and profound sense of umami flavours it transpires. In fact fish sauce, despite being commonly employed in Indochinese cuisines like Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian food as well, is synonymously linked with Thai food. And everything is balanced with a bit of sweetness from Thai palm sugar, a milder, and incidentally paler version compared to its southern cousin coconut sugar (gula melaka/gula jawa) used extensively in Straits and Indonesian cuisine. As such, Thai cuisine is really a big melting pot of flavours as well as aromatics. For me, one dish which epitomises the very essence of Thai cuisine has to be ส้มตำ Som Tam, its ever popular Green Papaya Salad.
The primary ingredients for Som Tam, except long beans which are missing in the photo as well as the obligatory fish sauce. I love this salad because it is really a bit of everything, sweet, sour, spicy, savory and umami! How much of “a bit of everything” depends really on individual liking. which flavours to accentuate and which others to mellow.
This spicy north-eastern vegetable salad is rather versatile and cucumber, green mango, green beans, pineapple or white guava are just some options available. The salad can be flavoured with salted land crabs, fermented fish (plaa raa) or dried prawns. The former two may be deemed as being too exotic for some folks and not easily available in the first place. Dried prawns are good enough to provide support to fish sauce and bring out the umami flavours of the dish.
Cross section of the green papaya I’d used. Emerald skin with jade white interior and pearl-like seeds. Not a hint of maturation and ripeness. The fruit is used for the crunch it renders more than anything else, and is otherwise pretty much tasteless. Flavours come from the entourage of condiments used. Unlike the standard versions which serve the long beans “whole”, I sliced them lengthwise likening the papaya so that the texture would be more homogeneous. Same thing for the thai cherry tomatoes used. But for those who prefer more visual contrast, feel free to keep them “intact”.
I don’t have the classic tall and conical terracotta mortar with wooden pestle used for making Som Tam so I’d used my batu lesung as a makeshift. But stone is much more “heavy handed” compared to wood of course. So pounding the ingredients in a somewhat half-hearted manner is actually good for making this dish! Not too finely though as Som Tam is as much about texture as it is with flavour.
ส้มตำ Som Tam – Thai Green Papaya Salad Recipe (serves 3-4)
(from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food)
3 garlic cloves
Good pinch of salt
2 tbsp roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed
2 tbsp dried prawns, rinsed and drained
2 slices or small wedges of lime (optional)
6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 snake beans, cut into 1 cm lengths
4-6 bird’s eye chillies (scuds), to taste
2 cups shredded green papaya, from about 1 small papaya
3-4 tbsp shaved palm sugar, to taste
2-3 tbsp fish sauce
2-3 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp tamarind water
To serve: steamed rice and raw vegetables
Using a pestle and mortar, pound the garlic with the salt then add the peanuts and dried prawns and pound to a coarse paste. Add the lime (if using), bruising it with the pestle, then add the cherry tomatoes and beans to the mortar and carefully work everything together. Next add the bird’s eye chillies, barely crushing them. The more they are pounded, the hotter the dish – and how hot you want it is up to you. Add them earlier if you’re after revenge.
Finally, add the green papaya and lightly bruise with the pestle, while turning and tossing the mixture with a large spoon held in your other hand. Season the salad with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and tamarind water. It should taste sweet, sour, hot and salty. Sprinkle with more crushed roasted peanuts to serve.