Among the curries, amidst the soups and around the stir fries, pad Thais and fried rice, one dish sits at the top for locals in Thailand, and quite possibly attains the same spot in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Som Tam, or Tam Som, Papaya Salad or Pok Pok: many names, even more varieties and capable of satisfying millions at any time of day or night. Costing as little as 10 baht on the streets to 300 baht in restaurants that base their whole menu on this one dish.
There is unlikely to be such a dish that causes so much consternation, conflict and controversy among Thai concerning which vendor, city, town or auntie produces the best-balanced plate of papaya salad.
Aside from the touch of artistic and dramatic license in listing the above nouns of dispute, it is a big deal. In keeping with Thai cookery tradition, however, the artistic license that one can apply to this dish like any other plate of Thai food results in different outcomes. Notwithstanding, there are some base ingredients that almost all parties can agree upon.
Green (unripe) papaya, garlic, chilli and shrimp paste make up the nucleus of this punch-packing plate. The addition of pla ra or padaek, fish sauce, tomatoes, preserved crab, peanuts and long beans (comically translate into Tua Fak Yao, if you like that sort of elementary play-on-words) can often all be found on the same Som Tam sellers stall for one to ask to be added into the mix.
The term Som Tam, or Tam Som in Laos, translates into Sour Pounded and they are pounded together in a mortar and pestle. Alternatives to the unripe and sour papaya can be carrot, cucumber, banana, mango, tamarind and lesser-known fruits such as Krathom (Santol) and Som O (Pomelo). It’s necessary to point out that all fruits and vegetables that are used as a substitute to the staple papaya all tend to be unripe when used. This allows them to stand up to the pounding process and causes them to part with their sourness.
Another cause for dispute are the unknown facts concerning the evolution and revolution of the dish. Culinary academics tend to agree that it originated in the Isaan and Laos area of Northeastern Thailand and that green papayas were used because they were in abundance. It was spicy and sour, like a lot of Isaan dishes and began to evolve as Isaan workers migrated to other parts of Thailand.
An Explosion of Spices
Bangkok was said to be introduced to this dish as early as during the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824), when Isaan workers came to the capital for work and bringing their own recipes with them. This was when it was sweetened, using palm sugar and tomatoes. Since then, it has spawned hundreds of varieties, thousands of shops and millions of adoring followers.
Som Tam usually comes with sticky rice and sides of raw vegetables that help mitigate the spicy punch. Serve it alongside grilled chicken for a simple yet special main meal.