Spatula, Spoon and Saturday

Eating and Cooking all the things in Melbourne

Som Tum Thai (Green Papaya Salad, Thai Style)

Som tum, I’m led to believe, is actually Laotian in origin. The salad of green papaya is actually quite common among a few countries in South East Asia. The Thai version flowed through from the north east of the country, bordering Laos*

So when the dish reached Central Thailand, it became, well, I guess bastardised hence the word Som Tum Thai (as opposed to Som Tum Lao). The main difference is the inclusion of sweetness by use of sugar and the addition of peanuts. Most som tum peddlers in Thailand will sell different varieties of som tum. This one is my favourite.

(clockwise from left: payaya and carrot, palm sugar, snake beans, tomato, lemon, roasted peanuts, dried prawns, chilli and garlic)

I’m not too sure referring to this dish as a salad does it justice. The vegetables and other ingredients are pounded in a pestle and mortar with seasonings (fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, tamarind) added one at a time while being pounded and churned. Like Josh said ‘it’s strange how you people beat the hell out of your salad.’

(fish sauce, tamarind paste and my awesome pestle and mortar)

I have this little gadget that slices the green payaya into strips which can be bought at Asian grocery store. I haven’t got a picture of it at the moment but I’ll get it up later.

I used a mixture of green unripe papaya with a little bit of carrot for colour. The addition of carrot is also a recent bastardisation but I like it. Just don’t go overboard with it. If you can’t get your hands on unripe papaya, I’m told (by people on the internet) that kohrabi is a good substitute. I also used a granite pestle and mortar but traditionally clay mortar and wooden pestle is used. It just means I can pound the hell out of it faster that’s all!

(lonely chilli and garlic to start)

Ingredients for 1 serve:

  1. 1 cup of shredded green papaya
  2. 2 tbsp of shredded carrot
  3. 1 ripe tomato, chopped
  4. 3 snake beans, chopped
  5. 1/2 lemon
  6. 1 tbsp of toasted peanuts*
  7. 1/2 tbsp of very good quality dried prawns (Josh thinks it’s horrid, more for me)
  8. 1 bird’s eye chilli (um, this depends on how much of a pussy you are. I am a bit of a pussy. By Thai standard anyway)
  9. 1/2 clove of garlic
  10. 1 tbsp of fish sauce
  11. 2 tsp of tamarind paste
  12. 1 tsp of coconut palm sugar (I have gula melaka, it’s not as sweet so I added a little bit of normal sugar as well)


Before you start, have all the ingredients ready. Realise that som tum is a very personal thing (hence one serving at a time). So tasting is extremely important. My Mum wouldn’t have sugar in hers at all. In fact, in Thailand when you order a som tum you literally tell them your flavour preference (‘very hot, not so sweet’ or ‘very sour and salty but just one chilli’).

(pound some more)

Pound together the garlic and chilli. Add dried prawns, half of the peanuts, tomato and snake beans. Pound until the tomatoes are slightly pulpy. Add sugar, fish sauce, tamarind and lemon juice to complete the dressing. Add papaya and carrot. Pound. Use a spoon to churn the salad over. Mix and pound a few more times for good measure.

(a perfect som tum)

Serve with some more peanuts sprinkled on top. Yum. Perfect diet food. Every Thai girl knows about the som tum diet. Just don’t eat it with the usual sticky rice and char-grilled chicken combo. However, let me tell you, it is perfect with both. Also great with rice cooked in coconut milk. I’ll have to make them some times.

* I was working at in a Thai diplomatic mission office when one lady asked me if a person with a ‘lay-oz’ passport needs a visa to Thailand. I had no freaking idea where the hell Lay-oz was and frantically looked up the map nearby (was new at the job, you see) and couldn’t find such country. The closest I found was Lesotho and she was getting frustrated with me until I asked her to spell it out which was when the story became clear. So I’m writing what I should have told her then, the s is silent.
** Toast peanuts on a non-stick pan with a few drops of oil until they turn slightly brown. They will continue to cook off the heat so make sure you remove them early rather than late. Store all nuts in the fridge. They don’t last very long.