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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
[Image Credit – Featured Som Tam photo at top of page and Som Tam Moo Yang – DarrenB3 at YouTube]
Som Tam Recipes in Other Languages