Just beat it: Laziness is killing our som tum flavor

Som tum pu from Baan Somtum

Som tum is a tricky thing. Because it seems easy to make, takes relatively little time and doesn’t involve many ingredients, this northeastern Thai grated salad is wildly popular on Bangkok’s streets and food courts, from Bang Na to the Chao Phraya river. 

But making a really great one is hard to do. Take it from me, som tum consumer extraordinaire: I can’t find a better version than the one available on the mobile cart at the corner of Sukhumvit 24 next to the Phrom Phong BTS. 

Really. I’ve spent days trying.

Normally associated with green papaya, som tum can be made from just about anything: cucumbers, mangoes, carrots, green apples, and whatever else is sturdy enough to stand up to the myriad onslaughts posed by fish sauce, chilies, a dash or two of pla rah (fermented anchovy), and, of course, the mortar and pestle. There is no som tum without the mortar and pestle. It’s alluded to in the dish’s name, after all.

Yet many vendors seem to want to pretend this is not the case. In short, they do not want to put their backs into it. Instead, they mash the sauce and chilies  around with a bit of half-hearted thwacking and then a little mix-around with the salad ingredients before upending the salad onto your plate and calling it a day.

This is not som tum. It’s some sort of yum, mixed together in the cramped confines of a mortar. The strands of papaya (or whatnot) need to be bruised, even briefly, so that the sap from the fruit mixes with the dressing to form an unctuous goo. If not, the strands are too hard, and the dressing doesn’t really take. And then you just end up with a lame-ass salad.

The fruit itself, ideally, should be chilled, so that it can properly stand up to all that bruising. Ideally, the strands should be hand-cut from the fruit (by making little vertical cuts in the fruit before shaving the strands off with your knife) instead of “cheating” with the ridged peeler-like tools that have made the lives of all som tum vendors so much easier. 

And that’s not all. There are even more factors that go into a good som tum, like time: it’s an a-la-minute-type deal, because if left too long it becomes what Thais will invariably describe as seng, a sort of catch-all word used for something boring and lame (this is the worst thing you can be in Thailand). 

What they really mean, I think, is that the som tum strands go flaccid and the flavors turn murky. Therefore som tum should be eaten as soon as possible, with an expiration date that is measured in hours instead of days.

Maybe you can tell that I’m picky about my som tum. Some might say I’m a bit of a som tum snob. Because I think the Isaan region makes the best of this dish, I like to eat it as it’s served there: spicy and tart, not sweet, with big hits of flavor from pickled field crabs and fermented anchovy. 

I believe som tum Thai (a sweeter, milder version of green papaya salad with dried shrimp and peanuts) is for som tum beginners. The funkier this dish is, the better, and I’ve seen it at its absolute funkiest: with snails, and strands of fermented rice noodle, and bits of water mimosa and Thai eggplant and shards of lime rind and homicidal lashings of flaming red chili – as surprising and treacherous as any dish I’ve had in Thailand.  

This is the sort of danger I will happily flirt with. So I order hardcore renditions at every place I can find – som tum pu pla rah (with pickled crab and Thai anchovy), som tum pa (“jungle” som tum with “everything” on hand), som tum mua (“mixed-up” som tum with rice noodles). 

Alas these Bangkok versions veer from I’m-gonna-kill-you inedible to deeply salty (limes are expensive these days) or puzzlingly bland.

No restaurant – even ones that include “som tum” in their names or with cooks that hail from Isaan – can compare to my mobile cart vendor lady, who can make this salad out of everything from green banana to custard apple to water olives, all for THB30 a pop. Luckily for me, she’s only a three-minute stroll away.

 

Photos: Chawadee Nualkhair

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