There are lots of region variations of this dish. I prefer making it with dead green papaya, but any combination of carrots and diakon (use a shreader and don’t pound them) is also fine. I have used cabbage and nopalitos but without much success.
The key to success is a balance of flavors. As the ingredients vary in intensity, taste and adjust the recipe as needed.
In a stoneware mortar from Dankwean, with a wooden pestle or by other means, pound 3 or four black pepper corns, 8 small cloves of garlic, 5- chilli pequins (also known as bird pepper or mouse shit pepper) until well mashed or fine. You can use 3 serrano peppers, or if you want no heat, a mild poblano. Standard US sweet green peppers are better than nothing but not quite right.
If available toast in a dry skillet 1/8 cup dried shrimp (you want to just start to toast and for them all to get hot). Add the shrimp to the mortar and pound some more. You can do the same with fresh toasted peanuts. Add 2 tablespoons of lime juice (you can use some sour orange juice or mashed kumquat as well), and 2 tablespons of fish sauce. You may substitute a teaspoon of shrimp paste or fish paste for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.
Julliene 3-4 cups of peeled dead green papaya (1/16- 1/8″ strips) (probably not available in a regular grocery store). To do this the Thai way, peel the whole papaya. Hold the whole papaya in one hand with the stem end facing towards you. Take a straight bladed knife and quickly chop parallel cuts into the papaya as you turn it. When you have chopped it sufficiently take a coarse vegetable peeler and peel off the no julliened strips. A coarse shredder is not really sufficiently thin, but “any som tam ส้มตำ is better than no som tam” no?
Picture of Julliened strips
In batches take the papaya and pound them medium gently in the mortar until slightly translucent. Place them in a serving dish. When all the papaya is pounded make sure it is well mixed. Taste it. It should be peppery, garlicy, and a bit fishy. Usually I have to add some more fish sauce and sometimes lime juice. The traditional recipe calls for a bit of raw cane sugar (jaggery). I generally leave it out.
Chopped tomato’s and a bit of parsley or celery leaves make good garni . T
Green papaya can be hard on the digestive track due to enzymes. You should probably hold back on this and limit yourself to less than a cup a day. It can cause sores just like pineapple and green mango.
แซบหลาย (f)saep (r)lai
ตำ Tam (the “T” is pronounced as a plosive predental a hard D like in “Tortilla” ) is a style of cooking, or spicing.
The best known version of this is Green Papaya Salad, Somtam. In Thai this salad has some other names, Tam Bakhung. Bakhung is Lao for papaya. In Thai papaya is “malakoh” and another name is Malakoh Bok Bok. “Bok Bok” is the sound of the pestle in the mortar. I could be reading this wrong but it has some less than faint sexual overtones. The pestle “saag” is slang for penis, pot is slang for vagina. Occasionally when I talk about buying a Thai mortar and pestle the day before my wedding it gets a bit of attention.
Tam, basic recipe:
Fish Paste or Shrimp Paste
Fish Sauce ( you can skip the paste, but you will make characterless Tam)
Hot Pepper, Back when I had a chilli pequin plant this was the only dish where I got it really spicy.
Lime juice. You see this translated as lemon juice, but its a bad translation in the US. Use limes.
This picture is of green mango salad, not green papaya. Our local grocery store had them in 2.2 pound bags. The were probably chill damaged or something. They did not have a price. Usually I walk past unpriced produce. But these were dead green mangos. What a treat! Don’t eat too many unless you like ulcers.
In order for this to seem really authentic these days it seems to need some salted land crab. Generally I stay away from this authenticity unless given no choice.
Since Tam is a style of cooking you can do a lot of different things with it. Carrot is a great vege for it. I like adding a bit of shredded turnip to just about any tam. But straight turnip is not great. Tam chicken feet can be had. I have seen chunks of cooked liver tam in the market. Noodles get tammed pretty frequently. Corn, fruit, foot long beans, cucumber, shrimp, the list goes on and on. If you want to see pictures do a picture google search for ตำ .
Green papaya is full of enzymes as is green mango. Papain the enzyme in papaya helps keep intestinal parasites under control and can kill some. When I first lived in Dankwian (10 months ’88-’89) it was made and eaten once a day in the late afternoon. I think that this is specifically to keep parasites under control and to not eat too much, its just a snack. Nong Fon, an Nong Gaowow used to make it. These wonderful women helped keep me and Gail alive when we were there. One of the great joys of Fazebuk has been to meet up with them again. I saw N. Gaowow again in 2019, and Fon again this year. They have the same smiles.
You need a mortar, pestle and spoon to make somtam, or any tam for that matter. The dishes are easy to make and more difficult than they seem to get right. It is all about balance, and with strong flavors it is hard to find the sweet spot in the middle.
I have never had bad somtam in Thailand. Restaurants in the US can make absolutely awful stuff. Generally I never order it. I would rather have them screw up the national dish Tom Yum Kung or someth ing else I care about. Somtam is a religious culinary experience. To serve some of the stuff I have been served should deal a deathblow to the cooks karma and they should wake up as dogs.
There are really great videos on making it on youtube. I tend to like the somtam videos from Lao. They seem right to me. I think that if you are going to learn to make this dish you have to watch a good video first. This guy seems to not be the house’ prime somtam maker, but clearly its not his first time either.
If you absolutely cannot take the heat do not [use] bell peppers. Get some of those little hot house peppers or mild poblanos.
Saap (like tree sap but with a falling [tone] and long lasting vowel,mean delicious in NE dialect) lai (pronounced like lye but should also be drawn out) together this is “very delicious”
Papaya, guava and many varieties of mango are mostly eaten green. Green papaya is used in gaengs (what we call curries) . It is rare to eat cooked papaya in restaurants. Like cooked turnip in the US it seems to have the sense of being food for the poor It showed up in a few dishes in the Santi Asoke compound I visit. They grow almost all the food that they eat.
Reports are that the seeds of papaya are edible. I have not seen them eaten in Thailand. This makes me hesitant. I have some real faith in Thai folk knowledge. Cultural practices often make a lot of health sense. Walking through the woods with a friend who grew up very poor I was introduced to leaves and fruit to eat. “This only a handfull a day”, “This only if you are very hungry, but it tastes good.” “You have to cook this”. Thais not eating the seeds makes question the practice although web searches makes this seem OK. As an aside, people eat jackfruit seeds cooked in several ways. Mango seeds are apparently eatable but not very palatable. One of my friends said that they are an important food source in famine in India. I am not a food safety expert… I have learned to not trust what I read on the web about the safety of unusual foods.