A Vegetarian Som Tum/ Som Tam - Thai Green Papaya Salad (GF, V)
At the risk of sounding like a bore, I’m going to repeat myself – I do not particularly like salads. Of late however, I have started discovering that they can go much beyond the “leafy greens” version so I have been experimenting with tried and tested recipes as well as making some of my own.
Some time back I discovered what has become my favourite salad of all time – Som Tum (some people spell it as Som Tam) or the Thai Green Papaya Salad! I can almost see most of you thinking “What’s the big deal with that?” or “What’s so new about Papaya Salad?”
To answer your questions, I didn’t know about Green Papaya Salad until a few years ago, and it was then that I discovered papaya could be eaten raw because back home we always cook it. Goa is a place where tourists from India and the world over flock in to eat Indo-Portuguese food, mostly seafood.
So cuisines from other parts of the world are still not very well known except in areas mainly frequented by international tourists. For us this usually is over an hour’s drive away and then generally on the expensive side. That apart, most of these restaurants serve mostly non-vegetarian food and with very few vegetarian dishes on the menus.
So most times when we wish to explore a new cuisine or dishes , the easier thing to do as vegetarians is to find a good recipe and cook it at home. That’s always a great idea provided you can find the ingredients where you live. Living in a tropical place like Goa where ripe papaya fruit is aplenty, you would think sourcing the raw kind would be easy. Not so! Looking for a raw papaya at my market is like looking for the proverbial “needle in the haystack”. For some reason, Goans don’t seem to use raw papayas. So finding one here is difficult unless you have a papaya tree in your backyard or your friends do in theirs and they’re willing to share.
The last time one of our friends came home and the talk turned to food and I was complaining how I couldn’t find raw papaya anywhere. The next time he came home, he brought me a huge green papaya from his garden. Another time I happily relieved my Aunt back home in Kerala, of some of the fruit from her over abundant papaya trees!
The original Green Papaya Salad is non-vegetarian and is made with fish sauce and either dried shrimp or salted crab. I like this salad so much that I’m willing to give up my quota of carbs at lunch time and feast on the salad itself. It helps that Som Tum is a perfect balance of crunchy, salty, sweet, sour and spicy which all the things I like.
Som Tum or the Thai Green Papaya Salad is a salad made with finely shredded raw papaya, yard long beans/ snake beans, tomatoes. Garlic, chillies, lime juice, soy sauce (fish sauce usually), and jaggery are pounded together to release the flavours. Then the shredded papaya, beans and tomato are also added and gently pounded to just bruise and tenderize them. This is then topped with crushed peanuts and served immediately.
Apparently the origin of Som Tum is Laos where it is called Tam Som or Tam Maak Hoong which translates to “pounded papaya”. Som Tum was brought to Thailand by immigrants from Laos who came looking for a better life.
Converting a regular Som Tum recipe to vegetarian is easy – leave out the dried shrimp and use a light soy sauce. You can use a dark soy sauce if that’s all you have but there will be a slight difference in flavour (more salt) and a big difference in appearance because your salad which should have been a nice off white with bright color will look a dirty brown!
There are a couple of important things to a Som Tum. It really helps to have a mortar and pestle, but if you don’t then here’s a suggestion of how you could use a blender/ processor and a mallet/meat tenderizer to make Som Tum.
The other thing important thing about making Som Tum is shredding the raw papaya. I’m sure there are many ways to do this including using a grater/ mandolin but I’d say the goodold-fashioned method is the way to go to get the papaya shredded just so. This is because you want the papaya to be finely shredded so it’ crunchy but you don’t have the feeling of raw chunky papaya in your mouth.
Also, make sure that the papaya is firm and raw (not starting to ripen) papaya so that your salad has its hallmark crunch.
This salad is also best eaten fresh as it tends to get soggy if it sits for too long.
Like a lot of traditional recipes, this is also just a set of guidelines and needs a little tweaking here to create that balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavours that’s just right. Some recipes use tamarind pulp instead of lime juice for the tang and though the Thai (and much of South East Asia where this salad is popular like Las, Cambodia and Vietnam) use spicy chillies, you can use whatever variety of chilli you prefer. If your chillies are hot, you might want to remove the seeds to bring down the heat.
You will notice that my recipe also has carrot. Carrot is not traditionally used in Som Tum but I had one in my vegetable bin and thought I’d use it up. I find it goes well in this salad.
A Vegetarian Som Tum (Thai Green Papaya Salad)
- Put the garlic in a mortar and lightly pound the garlic. Then add the chillies and lightly pound again. Now add the jaggery, lime juice and soy sauce and use the pestle to mix everything to a paste.
- Add the beans and pound gently just to bruise and soften them Now add the shredded papaya and carrot (if using) and pound softly, again just bruising them.
- Now transfer the salad to a bowl, add the tomatoes and adjust the seasonings according to your taste. There should be a good balance of sweet, sour, spicy flavours with a little bit of salt.
- Lastly add the toasted peanuts and mix well. Transfer to serving bowls, garnish with coriander leaves and serve.