This classic Thai som tam recipe makes the popular Thai green papaya salad that you’ll eat on the streets of Thailand. The spicy salad originated in northeastern Thailand’s Isaan region, but now you’ll find this street food favourite all over Thailand, and right across northern Southeast Asia. I also provide some tips below for jazzing up a basic som tam.
If you’ve not dropped by in a while, we’re still staying at home and cooking our way through the pandemic here in Cambodia. When we’re not testing Cambodian recipes for our cookbook, we’re making the food from the countries we love and miss travelling to, including neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, where parts of those countries are also in lockdown.
Not long after finishing my Vietnamese caramelised fish leftovers with steamed rice and loads of fresh dill yesterday, I was reaching into the fridge for the green papaya and cherry tomatoes that had to be used up, and set about making my favourite Thai som tam recipe. It’s a classic green papaya salad adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food, which can easily be jazzed up.
As I pounded the pestle against the mortar I found myself recalling a road trip many years ago through Thailand’s Isaan region. Isaan and Isan mean ‘northeast’ in Thai and Khmer, and it’s a region that was historically part of the Khmer Empire. We were there to work on a story about the region’s Khmer Empire temples and lunch stops were spent tucking into Isaan food, such as grilled chicken or gai yang and fiery som tam. I’ll tell you more about som tam in a moment, but first I have a favour to ask.
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Thai Som Tam Recipe for a Thai Green Papaya Salad and Tips for Jazzing Up Your Som Tam
This classic Thai som tam recipe makes the popular Thai green papaya salad that you’ll find made on the streets of Thailand. In fact, you’ll hear the ‘pok pok pok pok’ sound of som tam ingredients being pounded in an enormous mortar and pestle before you actually see the som tam stall.
Although Thai som tam originated in Thailand’s Isaan region, and many of you would automatically associate pounded green papaya salads with Thailand, the fiery salad is not unique to the country. Papaya salads are found right across northern Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Vietnam, and they share more similarities than differences.
You’ll also come across green papaya salads in Laos, where the Lao people call their pounded salad a tum som and it’s practically considered the national dish in Laos. The Lao people believe that tum som originated in Laos from where it travelled south to northeastern Thailand. The history is more complicated than that of course.
Here in Cambodia, there’s also a green papaya salad called bok lahong, and all manner of pounded salads, which are very old, such as bok svay, a pounded mango salad. They’re called ‘boks’ in Khmer. ‘Bok’ and ‘pok’ are ancient Khmer words that mean to smash or beat against something. I’ll tell you more about that history in our Cambodia cookbook and culinary history when it’s published. For now, just a few tips to making this classic Thai som tam recipe as it’s really very easy.
Tips for Making this Classic Thai Som Tam Recipe for a Thai Green Papaya Salad
I only have a few tips for making this classic Thai som tam recipe as it’s a cinch to make and comes together quickly. The basic Thai som tam recipe I use was adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food cookbook (link above).
I’ve only adjusted the order of prepping the salad a little (I recommend making the dressing first so the flavours meld together), a couple of ingredient amounts (for instance, I like a lot more cherry tomatoes than David), along with instructions (I prefer some of the ingredients to be more lightly pounded so the salad isn’t too wet – which is how most Thais like it; it’s not them, it’s me.
I don’t think those changes would horrify the chef, however, as som tam is very much a bespoke salad. There are infinite variations, not only from region to region, city to city, town to town, village to village, but from cook to cook and customer to customer, because som tam is a salad that’s meant to be customised to your preferences and tastes.
When we published posts on Isaan food from that road trip almost a decade ago, we pointed out that when you see a customer talking to a som tum cook at length while she pounds her salad, they’re not gossiping nor chatting about the weather. They’re discussing how the customer wants her som tum and the cook is making it to order – which is why it’s also perfectly acceptable to jazz up your som tum. More on that below.
To make this Thai som tam recipe, you will need an enormous mortar and pestle. I’ve seen som tam cooks use both wooden mortar and pestles and terracotta or clay mortar and pestles. We use a wooden mortar and pestle as we haven’t found a clay mortar and pestle that is large enough.
Don’t even think about making this in a blender or food processor. It’s just not the same. It seriously doesn’t take long to pound this salad by hand in a mortar. It will take you longer to wash your blender or food processor. And a bonus is that your arms will get a good work out.
We often get asked about fish sauce. As this is a Thai som tam recipe, re suggest using a good quality Thai fish sauce. We recommend Thailand’s Megachef for the quality as much as the consistency, especially when it comes to sodium levels.
For the palm sugar, we use a creamy organic Cambodian palm sugar made by a family about a 20-minute drive down the road, but if you can get hold of some, use a Thai palm sugar, in cream, tablet or granular form. If you live outside Southeast Asia, check your nearest Asian market or Asian supermarket. You can also buy palm sugar online, or use brown sugar, coconut sugar, raw or white sugar.
How to Jazz Up a Basic Thai Som Tam Recipe
You can really add anything to your basic Thai som tam recipe to jazz it up and don’t let anyone tell you any different. I’ve eaten som tam in Southeast Asia with pork belly, roast pork, bacon, shredded chicken, chicken feet, fermented and salted crabs in their shells, pieces of fried fish, and plump prawns. While green papaya salads are often eaten with sticky rice, steamed rice or rice noodles, there is a som tam where rice noodles are actually combined into the salad itself.
When it comes to vegetables, you could add shredded cucumber or carrot, shredded apple or round eggplants. There’s a som tam that is heavier on the snake beans than the green papaya, and another pounded salad that is bean-driven and skips the papaya entirely. The recent Thai corn salad recipe we shared is made as a pounded salad in Bangkok.
For seasoning, try more chillies (som tam is all about the chillies for some), shrimp paste, or fermented fish – pla ra in Thailand, padaek in Laos and prahok in Cambodia – are the obvious northern Southeast Asian additions. MSG is also popular. Garnishes can include fresh fragrant herbs such as coriander, mint and basil, and soft boiled eggs. In a village near Battambang I once saw a papaya salad cook squeeze the famous sweet local oranges into her mortar.
Thai Som Tam Recipe
- 2 tbsp palm sugar or to taste
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tbsp tamarind water
- 3 garlic cloves
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp roasted peanuts coarsely crushed
- 2 tbsp dried prawns soaked, rinsed and drained
- 1 lime quartered
- 12 cherry tomatoes halved
- 2 long beans cut into 2 cm lengths
- 6 bird’s eye chillies or to taste
- 4 cups green papaya shredded
- 2 cups steamed rice
- 2 cups raw vegetables such as green beans and cabbage leaves
- In a small bowl, combine the palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and tamarind water to create a som tum salad dressing. Try it – it should taste all at once sweet, salty and sour – then adjust any of the ingredients to suit your taste, and set aside.
- In a large wooden mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with the salt, then add and pound the peanuts and dried prawns to a coarse paste.
- Add the lime quarters to the mortar, bruising them with the pestle, then add the cherry tomatoes and beans, pound lightly, and push to the side.
- Add the bird’s eye chillies, pound lightly, barely crushing them; the more they’re pounded, the hotter the dish will be, so pound away if you can handle the heat.
- If your mortar is large enough, add the green papaya now, lightly bruise it with the pestle, and with the other hand use a large spoon to turn and toss the salad. Add the dressing you made earlier and combine everything well. It should taste sweet, sour, salty, and spicy-hot.
- If your mortar is not big enough, transfer the first lot of pounded ingredients to a salad bowl, then bruise the papaya in the mortar with the pestle, add the seasoning and combine, then then transfer that to the salad bowl, and combine everything well.
- Serve with steamed rice, raw vegetables such as green beans and cabbage leaves, and sprinkle additional crushed peanuts over the salad.
Please do let us know in the Comments below if you make this classic Thai som tam recipe as we’d love to know how it turns out for you, and we’d also love some feedback and a rating.