Som (Thai: ส้ม) which’s north-eastern Thai word means sour taste and Tum (Thai: ตำ) means pounding with pestle to crush or break ingredients. Somtum is a distinctive-sour and spicy dish that is made by using a pestle and mortar to crush and mix all ingredients together – Parita Nobthai of @thecrafthumpy
Apart from being one of the world’s most popular salad, there are many facts about Somtum beyond the various recipes published in cookbooks or history behind the origin of this dish. To be honest, Somtum is not the dish that I grew up with or something that I am always craving for but it’s undeniable to accept that people around me are the real fans of this dish and seem like they can’t live without it.
In Thailand, we can find Somtum vendors in different settings ranging from carts, kiosks, restaurants, five-star hotels and there is even a 1 Michelin-star Somtum buffet. I was firstly introduced to Somtum by my older sister at a tiny cart run by a couple from the north-eastern part of Thailand. There were ten varieties of Somtum on offer plus a huge variety of delicious Isaan food such as grilled catfish, grilled chicken, grilled liver, barbecue pork neck, crying tiger, Larb, Namtok and Bamboo shoot soup. In my opinion, it’s best to have a few dishes with your favourite choice of Somtum and sticky rice and fresh vegetable on side. For me, the best combination is grilled chicken, sticky rice and Somtum.
A common misunderstanding making Somtum is using a stone mortar and pestle. Wooden or clay mortars are used to make papaya salad in Thailand. These types of mortars have a unique shape with wider top, decent height (around 7 – 9 inches) and stable base. They has a lot of space suitable for making different portion sizes of Somtum. Wooden pestles are preferred as the main process is to crush, pound and slightly break all ingredients to give them a good mix while still look appetising on the serving plate.
Chopping green papaya for Somtum has become a good business, supplying ready-to-use green papaya for Somtum merchants. As Somtum is a popular dish, there is always a high demand for green papaya and chopped green papaya has made it more convenient for merchants. In Ubon Ratchatani, there are two shops selling only chopped green papaya and both of them sell almost 300 – 400 kilograms daily (Sawasdeekwan, 2017). This shows you how much Thais love papaya salad.
There are still many interesting facts about Somtum and more than twenty different types of Somtum in Thailand that I’d love to talk about. Each of them have their own character and unique combination of ingredients. Most of Thais have their own favourite Somtum that they usually order. We will look at a variety of this beloved Thai salad next time. Have a great weekend.
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