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.
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.
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.