Som Tam, Thai papaya salad

One of my favourite culinary memories of our year-long trip around the world was the salad in Thailand. It’s called Som Tam and typically combines raw shredded green papaya with all the best south-east Asian flavours: garlic, chilli, lime, peanut, fish sauce, palm sugar to make a bowl of pure zing that punches with sweet, sour, salt and heat in equal measure. There’s not a lettuce leaf in sight. I will go on record: lettuce is boring green crap with no value except to pad out otherwise perfectly good salads and sandwiches.

Now, there’s one essential problem with making Som Tam at home in England. Green papaya. It’s easier to find a parking space in Kingston on the Saturday before Christmas than a green papaya. Don’t whatever you do go and buy the “least ripe” papaya from your local supermarket – it will still be way too ripe. No, you have two options if you don’t happen to live next door to a really good oriental supermarket. First: buy a green papaya on-line, for £8 plus another £7 postage and packing. I got mine from this website, and it worked an (expensive) treat. One is enough for six to eight portions of salad. Second: start rummaging in the greengrocer for something to use as an alternative.

The green papaya is only there to provide texture and to absorb and distribute all the strong flavours added to the salad, it tastes of pretty much nothing itself. You just need something that will shred into fairly crunchy strips that eat well raw. I’ve found mention of Som Tam made with apples, or carrots, but the former I think bring too much of their own juicy taste and the latter are… well… carrots. Blech. And so I bring to you the perfect alternative to green papaya, nearly identical in texture, mild in taste and cheap to boot… Turnip Som Tam.

It’s perfect.

Som Tam, Thai salad (serves two)

Two handfuls shredded papaya/turnip
1 tomato, sliced in thin segments
1 small handful fine beans
2 bird’s eye chillies
1 fat garlic clove
2 tsp dried shrimps (optional)
1 handful roasted unsalted peanuts
3 tsp palm sugar (or caster)
3 tsp fish sauce
Juice of 1 lime
  1. Roughly chop the chillies and garlic (a fresh, juicy clove is important) then pound them to pulp in a pestle and mortar
  2. Add the palm sugar and pound some more, you want to end up with pretty much paste
  3. Now add the dried shrimp if you have them, pound some more. These are also hard to come by, but you won’t lose much by omitting them
  4. Next add the peanuts, and pound them into little bits but not to a paste. The peanuts need to be roasted, but not salted or coated – I found that I had to buy monkey nuts and shell them
  5. Top and tail the beans, and cut into inch-long pieces. If you’ve only got a small granite mortar, you’ll probably find it is full by now, so put the beans in a large bowl and crush them a bit with your knuckles. Add all the gunk from the mortar
  6. I used a third of a green papaya, or one good sized turnip. I shredded it with a mandolin, as I’m not sure how well a simple grater will get on with these veggies – it’ll probably be okay.
  7. Add the shredded papaya/turnip (or whatever you are substituting), the sliced tomatoes, the fish sauce and the lime juice. Go in with your hands and smush everything together, just spend a few seconds bruising everything so all the flavours mingle.
  8. Taste some. This is important, as personal taste and variation in the ingredients really come into play in this dish. Some limes have very little juice, some fish sauces are stronger than others. So: add more lime, fish sauce or palm sugar as necessary to get the right balance of flavours for you.

Enjoy! Oh, and I should have said: if you don’t like much heat, go for only one chilli. The perfect accompaniment to any Thai food, or any simple seafood dish for that matter.

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