Stopped in Sunday afternoon for the requisite Thai food fix at Sap's and settled on 4 dishes for the dining companion and I. Som tam, or shredded green papaya salad, is known as tam bak hung in Isaan, where the dish originated within Thailand. Som tam is very similar to the Lao salad tam mak hung and the Cambodian salad bok l’hong so those are thought to be its origins. Papaya was brought from Latin America to the Philippines by the Spanish in 1550, and spread into Thailand from Laos and Cambodia in the northeast, by way of Vietnam, and from Malaysia in the south. In present day Thailand, papaya grows wild, everywhere. The “tam” in som tam means “to crush” or “to pound”-- a verb that is most commonly used when a mortar and a pestle are involved. Som means “sour”, so the word combination som tam refers to something sour that is pounded in the mortar. It is listed at number 46 on the World's 50 Most Delicious Foods complied by CNN Go in 2011.
It's the most popular salad in Thailand and was a regional culinary transplant imported from Isaan to the Central region, brought in with the flood of workers from the poorer Northeastern quadrant of the country who migrated to the cities in search of jobs. It is a simple but delicious dish that is quickly prepared to-order, requires few ingredients, and a minimum monetary investment for a street vendor to produce. The dish has taken Thailand by storm over the last 50 years or so, and regional styles have developed as the dish spread. Bangkok, as the gastronomic focus point of the country, tends to adopt all styles with time, but the Central version generally uses small dried shrimp (goong haeng) as the protein.
Isaan and Northern versions tend to instead use the small, dark, pickled land crabs (shell and all) called buu (poo) kern, and instead of using fish sauce (naam plaa), they prefer the much more assertive naam plaa raa (paa daek in Lao or Isaan), a thicker, chunkier sauce made from salted and dried freshwater fish that is fermented with rice and aged for 9 months or more. Also used in the north and northeast to replace fish sauce is naam puu (buu), small, dark terrestrial field crabs pounded into a paste, mixed with water, and cooked into a thick, black, sticky liquid.
Coastal regions tend to use very fresh raw crab meat, with or without the shell; having to pick bits of shell out of your mouth is very common. The crab is ‘raw’, but actually undergoes a small degree of chemical “cooking” from the acid of the lime juice, similar to a ceviche. Along the coastal regions it is also common to see seafood (talay) som tam salads, made from a mixture of several types of seafood, or from a single species, such as shrimp, squid, oysters, fish, etc.
The base vegetable for a som tam is usually shredded green or unripe papaya, which grows wild throughout the country. The way a som tam maker shreds the papaya is a work of art: holding the fruit vertically in the left hand with a towel, she will make a very rapid series of shallow parallel cuts into the fruit using a knife that resembles a small, razor-sharp machete (daap) held in the right hand. She then holds the fruit over her large wooden mortar and ‘shaves’ thin strips of perfectly uniform julienned green papaya into the work bowl of the mortar. It happens in the blink of the eye, and looks amazingly dangerous. The green papaya can be substituted with pomelo, green mango or ‘sour’ (sweet-tart) mango, green cabbage, tart apples from China, deep-fried edible leaves or flowers, or any number of different vegetables or semi-tart fruits. Most street vendor versions stick with the green papaya.
Other than the salty-fish component, additional ingredients are fairly consistent. Shallot is always used as an aromatic. Lime juice or tamarind liquid is used for the sour element of the dressing; sometimes used in combination together, or used in combination with other citrus, such as tangerine juice. Sour is balanced with cane, palm, or coconut sugar, again, sometimes in combination for balance or color. Cherry tomatoes, peanuts, and pieces of long bean are fairly consistently added. The heat comes from hot chiles, usually phrik kee nuu, the tiny nuclear-hot green chiles favored by Thais.
When you’re on the street you can locate a som tam vendor by the “pok-pok” sound of their mortar and pestle as they pound the ingredients to lightly soften them. The mortar for a vendor is usually a concave, partially hollowed-out section of standing waist-high log, with a pestle made of sugar plum or tamarind wood. It is the resonating sound of pestle hitting on log that makes the echoing “pok-pok”. In the home kitchen, the salad mortar might be made of fired clay, or could even be carved granite.
A som tam vendor might ask you in sign language how many chiles you prefer when they are making the salad by saying ‘phrik’ (chile) in an inquisitive tone and holding up fingers (2 to 4 phrik kee nuu might be acceptable, while macho chile freaks can use as many as 10 to 15 per som tam serving). Be warned, som tam salads can be some of the hottest dishes you will eat in Thailand. I ate a particularly spicy version with raw crab and 9 chiles at a beachside restaurant in Bang Saen that instantly caused my brow to sweat, my nose to start running, and my taste buds to ignite as I began to hiccup (and I love very spicy food). It was so good, however, that a second plate was almost immediately ordered. To almost instantly relieve an overdose of chile burn, I recommend a tall glass of Thai ice tea; the dairy fat from the condensed milk on the top coats and removes the oils of the chile’s capsaicin.
The version served at Sap’s is known as Som Tam Thai, the version from the Central region, made with papaya, lime juice, Thai green chiles, palm sugar, fish sauce, garlic, tomato, served with lettuce on the side, and topped with peanuts and fried dried shrimp. This version is not as spicy as the typical versions made by cooks from Isaan, which can be amazingly hot, unbearably hot for the average foreigner.
Dish two was Prik Khing Catfish, a semi-spicy, sweetish, and earthy-herbal dry curry with sugar snap peas, shredded makroot leaf, palm sugar, all tossed with chunks of fried catfish. I love this dish, and love Phrik Khing curries of any kind. The curry paste used has garlic, shallots, galangal, lemongrass, makroot, shrimp paste, cilantro root, and dried red chiles.
Dish three was Pud Khing Moo, a stir fry of pork with ginger, scallion, onion, shredded cloud ear mushrooms, straw mushrooms, and a sauce with fermented bean sauce, a little soy, and fish sauce. It is incredibly balanced, only slightly spicy, and the pork and ginger are very convincing culinary pals.
Dish four was Gaeng Liang Gai, a southern Thai dish long considered a health rejuvenator, and full of flavor, vitamins, and minerals. It is spiced with white peppercorn and very spicy. The soup is made with fish sauce and shrimp paste, garlic, onion, kabocha squash, zucchini, thai basil, dried mushrooms, chicken stock, and chicken meat.Over there it would always have sponge gourd (buap), small Thai pumpkin (fak thong), and ivy gourd leaves (bai tum lung). That same small pumpkin is the one in Thailand that they stuff with coconut custard to make a luscious dessert.
Broken record, I know....but another delicious Thai meal at Sap's.
Mick Vann ©
Mick Vann ©