March 20, 2012
One of my favourite Thai dishes is som tum, the spicy green papaya salad so prevalent in Northern Thai or Isaan cuisine. I used to love it as a kid, and I love it even more as an adult although sometimes my tongue and stomach rebel against the fiery heat of the chillis that are pounded into the grated green papaya. This, together with dried shrimp, palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, tomatoes, raw green beans and peanuts produces a fragrant salad that so perfectly combines the sweet, sour, salty, hot and umami flavours.
I’m happy to say that unlike 10 years ago, som tum is now available in almost any Thai restaurant you go to in London. How far things have come. The British really love their Thai food.
The first thing we did when we landed in Bangkok on our eating odyssey was to walk around the corner from Novotel Siam Square, where we were staying, into one of the little indoor market street and to Som Tam Nua, a chain of restaurants specialising in Northern Thai cuisine and very popular amongst students (as Siam Square is next to Chulalongkorn University).
We went after lunch time so we were able to get seats, but when we passed the place at dinner time, there were about 20 people queuing outside! And no wonder because the food is great value there.
The menu was in both Thai and English but the waiting staff spoke only basic English or none at all so there was a lot of pointing at other people’s tables. It’s a good thing my mum isn’t the shy sort, especially when it comes to food.
And it was comforting to be greeted with this:
The sauce on the left was my favourite: it was spicy, sour, sweet and salty and I would have drunk the whole thing if it wasn’t so hot.
Of course we had to try the titular dish, som tum. I didn’t realise there were so many variations but we got what we thought was the basic som tum with everything.
As it turned out, everything meant everything including pieces of spam and pork rind (which was extremely light and airy).
We weren’t used to this and preferred it without. Plus it was a little fishy and darker in colour than what we were normally used to. But it was good and very spicy and we had it with khao niao (sticky rice), the traditional accompaniment.
The khao niao came steamed in these little bamboo pots.
And you eat it together with the som tum.
We also tried some other dishes to go with the som tum.
Deep fried chicken wings with garlic. This was SO good and my favourite dish in the restaurant. Almost every table had a plate of this.
Fried rice noodles covered in a generous helping of fish floss. I’ve never had this before but it was good and spicy.
But the best som tum we had was at our favourite eating place, the Thai food court on the 5th floor in Terminal 21, that mega department store where we also enjoyed our bah mee nam (wonton noodle soup).
There was always a queue for the salad and most of the Thai people ordering som tum would order it with the salted fermented crab pounded into the green papaya strands. I was all for trying it but was vetoed and so we got the normal som tum. We also got the som tum with only one or two chillis but everyone else had about seven of those firecrackers. Seriously, even two was HOT.
The orange colour isn’t just from the chillis but from the small, perfectly shaped dried shrimps.
And this is where the magic happens.
The lady chef had two huge stone bowls, one for pounding the normal som tum and the other for the fermented crab variation which she kept separate. In the front row you can see the small red chillis, dried shrimp, peanuts and fermented, grey crabs. In the second row there is a large bowl of what I think is fishy sauce as the lady chef only added this to the som tum with fermented crab. It looked a bit murky. And behind and to the right you can see the palm sugar, lime and fish sauce mixture so essential to the salad.
Som tum is one of those dishes that is fiery yet cooling and I guarantee you will become addicted.
Som Tam Nua
Siam Square Soi 5
Opening hours: 11am-9pm
Sukhumvit Road (between Soi 19 and 21)
BTS: Asok (direct access via Skywalk)