Som tum – Thai green papaya salad

Thanks for being so patient while I bunked off from blogging and from my other work for an indolent week. It’s been lovely – I’ve been to the seaside, got sunburned, drunk lots of lovely summery booze, eaten some great meals, and done lots of work on new recipes: it means I’m able to come back to you fully recharged. There’s lots to look forward to over a very busy couple of months to come, when I’ll be blogging from Cardiff, a cruise ship just outside Southampton, New Orleans, then Vegas and Phoenix – you can probably see why I felt I needed a short break before getting back down to things!

So then: som tum. You might have ordered this dish (and if you haven’t, you should; I’d rate it as one of the world’s best salads) in a good Thai restaurant. Green papaya makes the base of this salad, its dense, crisp texture made the most of with some careful shredding with a sharp knife. It’s bathed in a dressing which, for me, promotes it right to the head of the international salad flavour conspiracy. (See also: coban salatasi, panzanella and Swedish cucumber salad.) Som tum dressing touches every part of your tongue. It’s sweet with palm sugar, salty and umami with fish sauce and dried shrimp, sour with fresh lime juice, and spiked with chilli to give the whole mouth heat. Some aromatic herbs give it a lovely nose as well – for my tastes, this is about as good a picnic dish as you could make.

Green papaya is surprisingly neutral in flavour. If you can’t find any, Natacha de Pont du Bie, who encountered it in Laos, found to her pleasure that you can substitute a raw turnip in similar Laotian salads and that doing so will even fool Laotians, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t make the same substitution here. My papaya came from the Chinese supermarket on the railway bridge on Mill Road in Cambridge, and other oriental supermarkets with good fruit and veg sections will probably be able to help you too.

To serve up to six as a side dish, you’ll need:

1 green papaya
2 fat cloves of garlic
1 Scotch bonnet chilli (or three or four Thai bird’s eye chillies)
1 small handful (about 20g) dried shrimp (available from the Chinese supermarket in the chiller section)
8 cherry tomatoes
Juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar (use soft dark brown sugar if you can’t find any)
1 large handful coriander, chopped finely
1 small handful mint, chopped finely

Start by shredding the papaya. Peel it with a potato peeler (surprisingly easy), and cut into the thinnest possible strips. Some find that holding the papaya in one hand and making lengthways cuts like lots of guitar strings halfway into the fruit, then slicing down along those cuts so the shreds fall away from the fruit, is a good method. I prefer to cut the whole fruit into thin pages, and then cut piles of those into strips, because I have trouble with the hollow centre of the fruit when using the first method. Put the shredded papaya into a large bowl.

Crush the garlic thoroughly in a pestle and mortar, and add the shrimp, pounding it with the garlic for about 20 seconds. The shrimp won’t reduce to shrimpy rubble, but they should be well-squished and full of flavour from the garlic. Mix the garlic and shrimp well with the papaya in the large bowl, and add the halved tomatoes, tossing everything in the bowl thoroughly as if to bruise the tomatoes and papaya a little.

Make the dressing in a jam jar so you can adjust seasoning as you go. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and very finely chopped chilli to the jar and shake it with the lid on until the palm sugar has dissolved. Taste the sauce – you may feel it needs to be sweeter, saltier or more sour depending on your taste, so adjust it with some extra juice, sauce or sugar. Pour it over the salad in the bowl, add the finely chopped herbs and toss vigorously again.

This salad will hang around happily for hours, so it’s great to take to a picnic. I particularly love it with fatty meats or barbecued foods, or, of course, to accompany a Thai main dish.

Will you look at that – a hailstorm. Looks like I chose just the right moment to get back to work.

13 Replies to “Som tum – Thai green papaya salad”

  1. Sounds brilliant! Pity I mostly have to skip anything fishy as the beloved is allergic 🙁

    If you're in this neck of the woods (San Antonio, TX) feel free to swing by – we can take to fab Texas BBQ out the back of beyond where the pork ribs are to die for. It ain't no Tanuki tho 🙁

  2. Oh rats – that's a very depressing allergy to suffer from. While we're not going to make it to TX this time round, it's on the list – Dr W used to live in Austin, and we're hoping to spend a week or so in your neck of the woods next year – if you're unlucky, I'll take you up on that offer!

  3. Now, as regards that Raphanus sativus subsp. longipinnatus L, I've been after one myself. I want to have a go at savoury Chinese turnip cake (Lao Bak Go in Cantonese, I think), but it's proving very hard to find a mooli/giant radish that isn't elderly – everything I've seen recently (market, Chinese supermarket) has had a lot more give when squeezed with the fingers than I'd like.

    I've had a very pleasant week off indeed, thank you! There's nothing like a great big pile of books, a great big vat of wine and some serious sunshine. Best of luck with the move – hope it all goes well.

  4. IF you are in Cardiff at the weekend you must visit the Riverside Farmers Market, 9-2 Sunday morning just beneath the big Stadium in the centre of town. I can recommend a number of cool, cheap places to eat but they may be a little infra dig. The Armless Dragon was pretty good though.

  5. Alas, we're there midweek, and it's for a family celebration so I think meals have already been booked! That said, do let me know if you've got any restaurant recommendations; we may have a free evening or lunchtime.

    Quite excited actually; we're staying in the Radisson Blu, which opened less than a month ago (and is so new that it still doesn't have a functioning web site). It'll be nice to be able to check it out – and regular readers will know I am a big fan of the Radisson breakfast!

  6. I love somtom! Not many places make it with green papaya substituting carrot instead. As I am preganant at the mo it suits me fine. my friends luagh at me as I carry a little bag of dried shrimp to sprinkle on my somtom if we are going out to eat. Really like your blog.

  7. Thank you!

    I rather like it with carrot – I've had it made with carrots added to the papaya too, and it's pretty good like that. The mental image of you with your pockets full of secret shrimp made me smile!

  8. is a BYOB place that does the best Naan bread fresh from the oven. You need to order them one at a time and anticipate when you are going to need another one about 5 minutes before hand to ensure they are always hot. I could eat nothing but aubergine dip and naan bread and be very happy.

    The other place is really a cafe (formica tables etc) called which specialises in Bombay style Chat, Dosas and other Indian nibbly things, including sweets. They also do a very cheap thali which is usually incredibly spicy but tasty.

  9. Hi Chris! Your best bet's probably Mai Thai on Parker's Piece (in the old cricket pavilion); and of course the Wrestlers pub on Newmarket Road is famous for its Thai food – that said, I've not been in a few years. If you can make it out to Newmarket (12 miles or so), there's another very good Thai there called Sangdao on the opposite end of the High Street from the clock tower – it's my favourite in the area, although they've recently cut their menu down a bit, which is a pity.

  10. Hi Maeploy

    I know; thing is, here in the UK we're actually very limited in what herbs we can buy. Coriander's a good match here and works well – those authentiseekers among us can leave it out!

  11. Best Thai Transliteration for Green Papaya Salad is Som Tam.
    See book… Thai Food History and Transliterations!

    Old Som Tam (before the arrival of papaya during days before 1500AD) probably did not use papaya. It was Tam Som. Sour fruits were probably used with green babana or green mango!
    Mortar and pestle as food processor naturally


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