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Som Tam: Papaya With Promise

By Tom Tillman

    I’m very excited to introduce you to one of Thailand’s national dishes, som tam (ส้มตำ). This recipe is very simple, authentic, and easy.

Green papaya salad is the most popular dish among women in Thailand. It is a Northeastern food that is eaten with sticky rice and other Northeastern dishes such as laab, beef salad and bamboo shoot.

    The two most popular types of green papaya salad have either dried shrimp or salted crab. Green papaya salad with dried shrimp and peanuts is called “som tum thai.”  The green papaya salad with salted crab is called “som tum phoo.” The majority of the ingredients are the same.

I love the way all the ingredients are mixed with a mortar and pestle. And there are many variations on the recipe, just like kimchi.

This is an authentic way of preparing a spicy Thai papaya salad: Bruise thin papaya strips with garlic, chilies, palm sugar, lime, and fish sauce.  It’s a great chance for you to learn a real Thai recipe, and a spicy yet refreshing  salad. Try this Som Tam recipe for dinner tonight.
Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients for 2 servings:

  • 2 cups of shredded green papaya (You may be able to find an unripe papaya in your local supermarket, and it should have green skin. If not, the best place is an Asian food store or market. In any case, it should be firm on the outside; inside flesh will be white to light orange.)

  • 2 tbs of toasted peanuts

  • 2 cloves of peeled garlic

  • 1-2 fresh birds eye chili (or more depending on tolerance)

  • 1 tbs of dried shrimp

  • ½ piece palm sugar

  • 7 cherry tomatoes

  • juice of ½ lime

  • 1½ tbs of fish sauce

  • 1-2 tbs Thai string beans cut into 1 inch sticks


  • Roughly crush a small handful of unsalted peanuts with mortar and pestle. Set aside. Wipe the mortar and pestle clean.

  • Melt palm sugar in a small pan at low or medium heat, adding 2 tbs of water. The cooking process should form a shiny and thick syrup. This makes it easier to mix the sugar with the salad.

  • Peel the papaya shred it with a shredder (or a mandolin slicer) to thin strips and soak them in cold water while you prepare the rest of the salad. This makes the papaya crunchier and gets rid of any excess starch from the swede.

  • Cut the string beans into one-inch pieces. Throw away the endings.

  • Take the chilies and peeled garlic and give them a gentle bash with mortar and pestle. You still ought to see bits and pieces, not a puree. Add the shrimp and continue bashing. Add the crushed peanuts and mix well.

  • Add the shredded papaya and continue bashing, but not too hard. Just enough so the mixture soaks up the flavours. Use a bigger spoon as a support tool, that way you can shift the salad in the mortar and it doesn’t fall out while bashing and mixing.

  • Add the liquid palm sugar, tomatoes, string beans, lime juice and fish sauce. Continue to lightly bash, shift with the spoon, and mix a little more.

  • Serve on a big dish or bowl, sprinkle some crushed peanuts on top! Voila!

In Thailand, the salad is usually served with sticky rice and along another dish called “larb,” a spicy minced meat salad with raw vegetables.

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