Som Tum is a popular Thai salad that’s made with crisp green papaya, and pounded together in a large mortar and pestle. ‘Som’ means sour, and ‘Tum’ means to pound. This dish can be found all over Thailand, with different variations of flavor based on the region. You can still attempt this dish without a mortar and I’ll give you some tips below.
Papaya salad is definitely a dish that has some nostalgia for me. Anytime we had a get together at my parents’ house, my mom always made papaya salad. Even if we were serving Texas BBQ, grilled chicken, or Thanksgiving dinner, we had papaya salad to go with it. I’m continuing this tradition and trying to make papaya salad when we have cookouts or family dinners.
There are 3 variations of papaya salad, Thai style- which has peanuts, green beans, and dried shrimp. Another version has salted crab, and in the North East part of Thailand, Som Tum has pickled mud fish. Yes, I know that mud fish does not sound appetizing, but if you didn’t know what you were eating, you’d probably think it just tasted salty. I prefer Thai style Som Tum, and this is what you’ll usually find in Thai restaurants here. When I made this, I didn’t have any green beans on hand, but they are traditionally used. You can also add some shredded carrot to give it more color and sweetness. Green papaya can be found at most Asian grocery stores, along with the packaged dried shrimp.
Start by peeling the papaya and cut in half length wise. Then scoop out the seeds with a spoon and cut in half for easy shredding. I like to do a quick soak in ice water to ensure the papaya is crisp and cold. Shred the papaya with a mandoline or this type of peeler. Once the papaya is shredded you can begin making the ‘sauce’ in the mortar. Pound garlic cloves and Thai chili peppers until a paste is formed. Then add the fish sauce, lime juice, coconut sugar, dried shrimp, tomatoes, and papaya to the mortar. Begin pounding until papaya is evenly coated with sauce and tomatoes have been slightly smashed. If using peanuts, you can add them last.
If you don’t have a mortar you can use a food processor or finely chop the garlic and chili peppers. Then mix the fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar together. Pour the sauce over the shredded papaya, tomatoes, green beans, dried shrimp, peanuts, and toss. Traditionally papaya salad is served with sticky rice and Thai beef jerky, or with grilled chicken.