Thai Som Tam Bla Rah! Thailand’s Top Spicy Sour Salad

Spicy Papaya Salad w/ Fermented Fish Sauce

Som tam Bla Rah is one of Thailand’s most beloved lunch and dinner entrees, and most Thais love it. Even foreigners who come to Thailand and try it become hooked on its bizarre combination of ingredients and flavors. You’ll probably like it too!

Som Tam comes from the Northeastern “Isaan” region of Thailand which is near the border of Laos. We eat this meal almost daily for lunch or dinner. It is usually accompanied by “Gai Yang” – barbequed chicken or pork and some condiments: cucumber, lettuce, and green beans to take some of the spice away.

Sometimes it’s made as Som Tam Moo Yang – with grilled chicken. We have a photo below.

Som Tam Thai has peanuts and green beans, and dried baby shrimp. Som Tam is very delicious and my favorite Thai food! My husband has also grown to like it – he says it’s addictive.

Here is our Som Tam (Som Tum) recipe. My mother and aunts would make this when I was young, and then later we just bought it at the food stall since there are so many good ones in my hometown of Sisaket in Isaan! In Isaan we make our Som Tam VERY spicy. Ped-ped, we call it.

My husband calls it “Som Tam Ped Silop-silai” because it’s so spicy that you might fall down into a coma. It does get spicy in Sisaket. Feel free to cut down the number of chili peppers you use!

Som Tam Ingredients

Chilis – 1 to 7 according to your preference and ability to handle spicy food. If the chilis are especially hot, even 2 will be plenty for most people.
Garlic – We use 2 to 4 sections, and really we’ve used more than that too!
Tomato – 1 or more sliced tomatoes. Cut in chunks, not round slices.
Eggplant – 1, slicked and cut into quarters
Fermented Crab – this is boo blah rah, you can use this or the next one – fish
Fermented Fish – A small bit of fermented fish sauce around 2 tbsn. up to 1/4 cup is fine, depending how many people you’re making the som tam for..
Papaya – a big handful of shredded unripe papaya about the color you see in the image below is perfect.
Fish Sauce – 1 tbsp.
Lime or Lemon – 2 halves work well.
Palm Sugar, White Sugar, Honey – 1 tbsp. or slightly more depending what you prefer.

Shredded unripe papaya for making Som Tam - Thai spicy salad.
Freshly grated green (raw) papaya forms the basis for great som tam salad! ©

Som Tam Instructions

1. Use a pestle to crush and mix all the ingredients together. Starting with garlic, chilies and then add the rest.

2. Pound chili peppers and garlic together. Add tomato, eggplant, and fermented crab. Then, mix it with fish or crab sauce, bla rah, lemon, and sugar. The sound of pounding the ingredients makes a bpok bpok noise. Some people call som tam, “Bpok Bpok”! Some parents in Thailand name their kid Bpok!

3. Put papaya in and mix it by pestle or spoon. Now your som tam bla rah is ready to be served.

4. Lay fresh vegetables, cucumbers, cabbage, string beans or morning glory for example, on the side. Cucumber is good for taking away some of the spiciness of the chilies. So too is eating each bite with some rice. Eating som tam plain without rice is sacrilegious in Thailand. The right way to eat is with sticky rice – Kow Neow. Ask for it!

Som Tam (Som Tum) spicy papaya salad from northeastern Thailand.
Finished som tam on a plate with some vegetables to take away the sting of the chilis. ©

When mixed thoroughly serve in a bowl or on a plate. Rice is always served with this – the som tam is eaten with rice to take the spice out of it a bit, and just because Thai people eat LOTS of rice! Sticky rice (steamed rice) is the preferred rice in Isaan, but you can use boiled white Jasmine rice. Sticky rice is called Kow Neow (cow nee-ow).

This video is of a night market close to Teung C. Muang park in Ubon Ratchathani in the northeast of Thailand (Isaan region). This woman is my favorite som tam maker. You can see her squeezing the “minao” (lemon/lime) and adding the papaya to the mortar and pestle.

She makes HUNDREDS of these dishes every day! Sorry for the video quality, but you know this video was shot from my Nokia flip phone back in like 2008!

Click here to watch how to make Som Tam Thai (green beans) video. This video is from 2010 and a better camera but still not amazing quality! Sorry!

Som Tam Tip

Using a pestle to pound and mix the ingredients with papaya makes the sauce get into the papaya better than stirring. It will also make your Som tam juicy!

My Som Tam Bla Rah Video at YouTube >

Types of Som Tam to Order

  • Som Tam Bla Rah (pla rah) – This version uses fermented fish.
  • Som Tam Kow Neow (kow nee-ow) – This one comes with sticky rice.
  • Som Tam Mak Boo (maak boo) – This one mixes green beans in with the main ingredients.
  • Som Tam Som – This version of som tam is made with unripe mango instead of payaya.
  • Som Tam Moo Yang – som tam with grilled pork.
Som Tam Moo Yang – with grilled chicken can also be addictive once you’ve eaten it in Thailand!

Where Did Som Tam Originate?

Som tam is believed to have originated in Laos, the country that borders Thailand to the Northeast and East. The dish is known as tam mak hung in Laos, and it is made with the same basic ingredients as som tam: green papaya, chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar.

You can order the Laos version by asking for Som Tam Lao. Thais don’t pronounce the s at the end of Laos.

The exact origins of som tam are unknown, but other people say it was first created in the Isan region of Thailand, which is located in the northeast of the country and borders Laos. The Isan region is known for its spicy food, and Som Tam is a perfect example of this.

In the early 1900s, there was a large migration of people from the Isan region to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. This migration brought som tam to Bangkok, where it quickly became a popular dish.

Som tam continued to gain popularity in Thailand throughout the 20th century. In the 1970s, it was featured in Thai cookbooks all over, which helped to spread the dish to other parts of the world.

Today, som tam is a popular Thai dish that is enjoyed all over the world. It is a delicious and refreshing salad that is perfect for a hot day. It is also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.

About Som Tam, Thailand’s Favorite Dish

Som tam (also spelled somtum) is a very popular spicy Thai salad made with green papaya, chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and a sauce of fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. It is a classic Thai dish that is known for its refreshing, spicy, salty, and sour flavors that go well together.

To be honest, there is something addicting about som tam and most Thais will admit to being addicted to it and having to eat it at least once or twice per week. Some people eat it more often than that!

The green papaya is the star of the show in Som Tam. It is shredded into thin strips with a special grater to make the right size strips. Then, it’s pounded with a heavy clay or stone mortar and pestle until it is soft and pliable. This process helps to release the papaya’s natural juices, which gives the salad its signature spicy and tangy flavor.

The chili peppers in som tam are what give it its heat. The amount of chili peppers used can vary depending on the individual’s preference, but most Som Tam is quite spicy. If you are not a fan of spicy food, you can reduce the amount of chili peppers or omit them altogether.

It’s a good idea to learn how to say the number of chilis you want in your som tam. Say “Song Prik” for 2 chilis, “Sam Prik for 3, See Prik for 4, and “Pedt Silop So Ly” if you want it so spicy that it puts you in a coma!

The other ingredients in som tam add different flavors and textures to the salad. The tomatoes add sweetness and acidity, the peanuts add crunch, and the fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar add saltiness, sourness, and sweetness.

Som tam is typically served with sticky rice. It is a popular street food in Thailand, but it can also be found in restaurants all over the world.

Som tam is a delicious and refreshing salad that is perfect for a cool or hot day. I know it sounds strange that Thais eat hot and spicy som tam on the hottest days of the year, while it makes them sweat at the restaurant, but for some reason, it is so good that we don’t care!

Somtam is a great source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, and lots of fiber. If you are looking for a new and exciting salad to try, I highly recommend giving Som Tam of some variation a try with or without the fermented crab or fish!

My Som Tam video at YouTube >


Sawasdee Ka - Joy

[Image Credit – Featured Som Tam photo at top of page and Som Tam Moo Yang – DarrenB3 at YouTube]

Som Tam Recipes in Other Languages

10 thoughts on “Thai Som Tam Bla Rah! Thailand’s Top Spicy Sour Salad”

  1. Som Tam Bla Rah (blara, plara, pla rah) is an amazing dish that is addictive after a short time. If you like hot spicy chili dishes and you also like sour, this is the perfect Thai food dish. You just need to get used to eating fermented fish sauce, which I got over by the second time I ate som tam bla ra. Most western people can’t eat it but if you come to Thailand and you can eat it – the Thais’ will adopt you as one of their own. Don’t worry, even most Thais can’t eat it very spicy – it can be TOO MUCH! If you try it – make sure you say “mai pedt” or, (my pet) which means not spicy. They will still use a couple chilis and it will still be spicy – but you won’t die from it. In Isaan – the Northeast where Joy is from they grab a handful of super spicy, large red and green chilis. There are 15 or more peppers. If you can eat that, you ARE Thai. I can eat half a meal of it – but need to switch to something cooler for the 2nd half of the meal. Still – I find myself sneaking some more bites at the end of the meal. Som tam plara IS addictive. No doubt! – Vern, Joy’s husband

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  3. Joy – I am so happy to have found your website! I LOVE SOM TAM! From the first moment I tasted it I hunted down the ladies and the carts that the salad comes from. Now back at home in the UK, and Australia I’m always on the lookout for green papayas. Lucky day when I find one. Now, may I please ask: what is your technique for preparing it? I have been using a big chopper and being really fed up by the end of the whole chopping process (until I taste it of course). Any tips please? or any machines to help?

    • Hi Xina,

      Thank you for writing me. Som tam is made by using a heavy knife and holding the unripe papaya in left hand while swinging the heavy knife with right hand long-ways and making 1/2 inch cuts in it over and over and over… then, shaving those cuts off like peeling a carrot with a knife…

      Turn to a new side and repeat… hope you can understand that!

      🙂 Good luck! 😛 Joy

  4. HI JOY..


    • Hi Macie,

      Thank you for commenting! I wish I could tell you where to go – maybe someone will write in and tell you. I live in Thailand – have not been to usa. Glad you enjoy my recipes!

      🙂 Joy

  5. Hi Joy I have a friend mom she makes this dish called Tum Thai I don’t know if I spelled it right but its also a spicy dish and she makes sticky rice to go with it is this dish the same as the above dish kind of looks similar to it if it helps she’s from Asia

  6. Thanks For Sharing this amazing recipe. My family loved it. I will be sharing this recipe with my friends. Hope the will like it.

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