What Is Som Tam?

Tiffany Manley

Som tam is a Thai dish known to many people as green papaya salad. As with most regional cuisine, however, som tam has many variations that depend on taste preferences and locality, among other factors. The ingredients used in this dish might include shredded green papaya, fish sauce, dried shrimp, peanuts, chilies and vegetables. It is often served by street vendors in Thailand who prepare the dish to order. According to many Thai people, som tam is one of Thailand's most popular dishes, and it can be found in just about every street vendor area.

Palm sugar is an ingredient in a fruit variety of som tam.
Palm sugar is an ingredient in a fruit variety of som tam.

The common ingredient in the various types of som tam is the shredded green papaya, but most other aspects of the dish vary widely from preparer to preparer. In some places, the ingredients might include things such as fermented fish sauce, sugar and certain types of fruit. Although a variety of ingredients are used in this dish, its composition usually is the same. A dressing is made, and then the various vegetables, fruits and proteins are added in varying quantities and mashed together in a mortar and pestle to bring out all of the flavors.

Many people believe that som tam is best served with sticky rice, although it might be served with a variety of side dishes. It can be served with chicken, fish or even by itself as a meal or snack. At times, dried fish or shrimp are added directly to the dish.

Although it traditionally is made using a mortar and pestle, som tam can be made without these kitchen utensils. Important to the dish is the smashing of each ingredient to release the flavor and aroma. This could be accomplished by using a rolling pin or jar to smash the ingredients in sealed bags prior to combining them or by simply smashing them with a spoon as each ingredient is mixed in. Some ingredients, such as corn, are not usually smashed and are added at the end to combine with the rest of the dish.

Fruit som tam is a delicacy common to the Isaan region of Thailand. Although the name implies that it is a dish made of fruit and without the traditional vegetables and fish, this is not the case. Fruits such as grapes and apples are combined with vegetables such as long beans and eggplant, and those are then mixed with palm sugar, limes, tomatoes, fish sauce and chilies to create a salty, sweet, sour and hot dish that appeals to many people. As with any som tam, the exact ingredients and measurements are not always the same.

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