Thursday, 24 June 2010

Som Tam – The Spicy Salad

Spicy and salad are generally two words which are not found in the same sentence. In Thai cooking, the nation’s spicy salad is called som tam, or sometimes som tum. It is derived from Laos to the north of Thailand from a dish called tam mak hoong or the Cambodian version is known as bok l’hong. The salad is made from the unripe core of a papaya using a special tool which takes three strips of the fruit at a time. The end result is spaghetti like noodles of papaya.

Thai cuisine typically has four main tastes that are present in nearly all dishes. The heat comes from the chilli, the salty fish sauce, the juice of a lime and to counteract the flavours, palm sugar is also added. What is often served up as a side dish or as an accompaniment to noodles and vegetables, som tam gives a refreshing taste with the zing of some hot chillies.

Added peanuts, crab (padaek) or dried shrimp are nearly always found in som tam, but in Isaan the crabs are usually raw, meaning the government tries to recommend not having them as there could be an hepatitis risk. As ever with most dishes, there are variations. Some restaurants and markets offer a papaya replacement with mangoes, carrots and cucumbers. Again, the major Thai tastes are present but with a different, but equally fresh un-ripened fruit.

Som tam is a versatile dish that can be found with rice, noodles or vegetables. It is also treated as a snack usually with some salty pork rinds. The dish can stand on its own as being a genuine dish, but with the freshness and spiciness, sometimes just having a small side order is enough to taste the flavours. Hot, fresh and interesting is the best description!