Intro: Spicy Thai Papaya Salad - Aka "Som Tam"
"Som Tam" (ส้มตำ) is a spicy papaya salad that will light your taste buds on fire! It has such a range of flavors and a balance of spicy, sweet, sour and salty! It is incredibly healthy and delicious! It originates in the northeast of Thailand. I used to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand and would order this at least a couple times a week. It only cost me about 60 cents. I used to also eat it with chicken and sticky rice I'd buy from the market in Thailand - also known as "Gai Yang" (ไก่ย่าง). If you haven't been to Thailand yet and you get the opportunity - the people, the food and the sights are incredible and being there will change your life!
Onto the recipe now - I just wanted to let you know that I am omitting two ingredients which are commonly used in this recipe in Thailand. You'll understand why when you see the images! ;) But, if you have a taste for this kind of thing, please add it to your dish and don't let my preferences change that. There are two ingredients commonly used which I am omitting - one is pickled fresh water crabs and the other is small dried shrimp. Have you ever had dried shrimp? I was originally an exchange student with the Rotary Club in Bangkok, Thailand at the age of 16. I lived with a wonderful family and a host-dad who was intimidating and always made me eat the most exotic and strange specialties. So I ate my share of odd foods and dried fish and dried shrimp - and I just don't care for it! Too fishy and I didn't like the texture. The crab which they like to use in this dish - I just can't fathom eating it because I've seen how it's added to this dish and crushed like the other ingredients. I prefer this without any added sea creatures!!!
Please do not let my icky introduction scare you away from making this - because it is delicious! For someone who likes trying different types of foods from around the world, you should like this. The Thai people I knew would eat it when they were trying to lose a few pounds. I've read some interesting things about papaya and it seems the unripened green papaya is super-healthy and can ease some digestive problems. So let's get started!
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Step 1: Ingredients for Som Tam
- 2 cups of shredded green unripe papaya (I bought mine at my local Asian grocery store)
- Thai Peeler, I have the Kiwi Pro Slice Peeler
- 1/2 cup of fresh string beans cut into pieces (I bought these at the Asian grocery store as well)
- Thai chilis - I used 3 and it was quite spicy (start with one or two and add more after tasting at the end)
- The Asian grocery store I go to is very small and they have these Thai chilis in the freezer section
- I still keep mine in the freezer and take a few out whenever I make this dish - but fresh is best!
Step 2: Washing & Preparing the Unripened Papaya
The first thing you'll want to do is take out your peeler and peel away the first layer of green skin off of the papaya - then discard it. Then, use the peeler to shred the papaya into strips. Do this until you get down close to the center area which has seeds. If you shred too much, the seeds will fall out everywhere. So be careful with that and shred it all up. You can then take about 2 cups of it and set it aside in a bowl - the rest can be put in a container or sealed bag in the fridge.
The two cups of papaya you set aside in the bowl, you'll need to rinse it off really well in the sink or in a strainer, then return it to the bowl.
Step 3: Prepare Chilis, Garlic, Beans & Tomatoes
Now you'll want to rinse off your vegetables. You can slice the garlic cloves in half. And, slice the beans into 1-2 inch pieces. If you have cherry tomatoes you can slice them in half. If some other tomato is being used, you can slice it into thin pieces or chunks. Lastly, cut the stems off of the chilis. If you can handle spice, then leave the seeds. I recommend starting off with one chili and slicing it into smaller pieces before it's put into the mortar. If you need more spice after the whole thing is made, then I would add it at that time. For now, you should be finished with slicing and preparing your veggies.
If you have Chinese cabbage for the side, then you can also wash it and cut it and set it aside now.
Step 4: Mortar & Pestle
Put your chili(s) and garlic into the mortar and use your pestle to pound the chilis and garlic. Next, add the beans and tomatoes and pound lightly. At this point, I have a problem because my mortar is too small. So, like I mentioned, you can always improvise. I improvised by adding the beans, pounding it and then transferring my chilis, garlic and beans into another container (my ninja blender tall cup). Then I add the tomatoes to that new container and gently pound them - just to get the flavor dispersed without destroying the tomato entirely. It might look weird, but it works.
Step 5: The Liquids
Next, add 1 tablespoon of fish sauce to the mix, 1 tablespoon of lime juice and 1 tablespoon of palm sugar. If your palm sugar is super hard and too difficult to get out of the container it is in, then you can heat it up carefully in the microwave to get it at a liquidy consistency. Be careful not to heat it up too much! The Thai people would add these liquid items last - one by one to get a taste for it and to know if more was needed. Personally, I add the tablespoon of each one and mix it all up really well - then I taste it and decide if I need to add a little more of one of the ingredients. This is totally up to your personal taste preferences. I only go by what I know it is supposed to taste like, based off of having it many times in Thailand. The ingredients you use might differ from mine, but the overall recipe should be pretty authentic to how it should taste. If any Thai people read this and have any suggestions, please let me know!
There's a couple things more you need to do after you've added these ingredients. Make sure all these ingredients are well-mixed and pounded with the pestle.
Step 6: Peanuts and Side of Cabbage
Now is the time to taste the dish and see if you need to add a little more palm sugar or a little more fish sauce or lime juice. Also, if you want it spicier, use the mortar and pestle to pound out another chili or two and add it to the rest of the dish. Mix everything well and transfer to serving bowl or plate. If you want to add a side of cabbage, do that now. And, to top it off - finally, pound your 1/4 cup of peanuts and add them to the top of your salad.