Som Tam in Bangkok

I’m not sure where I first heard of Som Tam, but it’s one of those things that’s mandatory to sample if you go to Thailand. I’d also heard it called papaya salad and after a day of wandering around Bangkok with a brutal hangover, I decided that something light and refreshing like a bowl of lettuce with hunks of sweet red papaya flesh dropped in sounded just the ticket. A girl from my hostel and I found a little place off Soi Rambuttri with plastic chairs and clean table cloths and I ordered a plate.

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What was brought out did not look at all like anything I would have described as a salad. I couldn’t see any papaya, which was disconcerting, just skinny strips of pale stuff; sprinkled with peanuts, green beans and a few chopped tomatoes swimming in a pinkish liquid. The first mouthful was surprising; a rush of crunchy, salty-sweetness. Then the next brought a tingling on my tongue and lips. The third came with a pressure behind my eyes and a nose that felt at once both hot and cold and started leaking like an old boiler pipe. When I first moved to Thailand I had a pathetic tolerance for spicy food and what everyone had neglected to tell me was that som tam is traditionally served hotter than the surface of the sun. This is a trial by fire that everyone who visits Thailand has to undergo and it only takes a few short weeks before you find yourself craving that rush of zesty spice, pounded mercilessly by an old lady with more strength than you’d credit her for.WP_20140708_038

Normally it would be served with fish sauce, crab and prawns, but it doesn’t need them. All Thai food is based around the four cardinal elements of taste (as the Thais consider them); salt, sweet, sour and spice, and no dish better represents these elements than Som Tam, made with crisp green papaya.

I’ve spent ages trying to recreate som tam here at home where you can’t get green papaya; experimenting with cucumber and cabbage (not the same at all), and I have finally found the winning substitution – shredded swede. If you follow my recipe it’s almost exactly the same as the real thing; crunchy and slightly sweet. I knew I’d got it right when I opened the fridge and a wave of Thailand floated back out at me; that perfect ratio of chilli and lime and coriander wafting around the kitchen like a cartoon cloud leading me by the nose.

You will need (for 2):

  • Half a Raw Swede Cut Into Thin Strips
  • 2 Tbsp Slightly Crushed Peanuts
  • 2 Cloves of Diced Garlic
  • 1-2 Diced Red Chillis
  • 3 Tsp Dark Brown/Palm Sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 Lime
  • 1 Diced Large Tomato
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Soy Sauce
  • 5-6 Green Beans cut into Inch-Long Pieces

1. Roughly crush the peanuts.

2. Peel the swede and cut it into strips. Leave it in a bowl of cold water whilst you prepare the rest as that will absorb some of the starch and keep it fresh.

3. Melt the sugar in a pan with 2 Tbsp of water, until it becomes a glossy black syrup, this will help it to mix into the salad. Be careful not to burn it.

4. Mash the chillis and garlic in a pestle and mortar. You don’t want them pureed, but they need to be crushed up to release the juices. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar you can put them in a sandwich bag and bang it with a rolling pin. Make sure you’ve got all the air out of the bag though or it’ll explode; which, whilst hilarious, is not very good for your lunch.

5. Add the peanuts and bash some more, then add all the other ingredients, including the swede, and bash, bash, bash. Stir it occasionally, then carry on bashing.

6. Serve with a garnish of coriander.

New Eyes and Extra Colours

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Terry Pratchett (and many drunken travellers paraphrasing) once said; “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Truer words and all that. Another thing a fellow back-packer once told me is that it takes you the same amount of time as you spent in a failed relationship to fully process that same relationship and move on. The same is true of time after travel.

One of the worst things about returning after an extended period of wild adventure is responding to questions like ‘what was it like?’ ‘Did you have a good time?’ How do you summarise 18 months in a whole other world down to a few neatly palatable sentences? I know what things I miss the most from being on the road (although I don’t doubt that I’ll be back on it again one day), but I was curious about what got my fellow backpackers to yearning – so I thought I’d ask!

Of all of the, at least temporarily, retired backpackers that I surveyed, the most popular answer that they gave was people; the other 488031_163772840451369_98655734_n - Copytravellers they meet on the road and the locals that they got the opportunity to spend time with. And how do you spend time with people? Why eating and drinking of course! In fact food made up a whopping 10% of all the answers given to the question ‘what thing do you miss most about international travel?’ Other top answers were finding out about new cultures, having adventures and the total freedom to be spontaneous and go wherever the wind blows you.

Now that I’m back in suburban Hampshire studying and working, there are limited ways that I can recreate any of those wonderful things for myself. If there’s one thing I know I can do though, it’s cook; so that’s what I’m going to do, at least until I can begin a fresh adventure. I shall see my kitchen with new eyes and extra colours as I recreate every wonderful, nostalgic meal I’ve had on the road. Hopefully I’ll even bring in some other people’s stories and recipes too, so that I can share the trials and triumphs of being a vegetarian in, and all-over, a meat-eater’s world.