The Ultimate Guide to Som Tum: It's not just Papaya Salad!
Som Tum (ส้มตำ) is a form of spicy Thai salad that is associated as coming from the Isaan province in North-East Thailand. However, it originally came from Laos, which shares a boarder with Isaan. These days you will find it all over Thailand and it is a comfort dish for many Thais. it is almost impossible to walk down a street without seeing a som tum vendor and increasingly in Bangkok a fashionable som tum restaurant.
What is Som Tum?
Som Tum is often translated into English as "Papaya Salad" as the original dish has green papaya as the base ingredient.
The most globally recognised version som tum is "Som Tum Thai" as it is possibly the most palatable and does not contain any of the more pungent of ingredients that some versions do. The core ingredients users are chillies, fresh garlic, dried shrimp, fish sauce, palm sugar to, peanuts, juicy limes, cherry tomatoes, green long beans, and green papaya. However, there are so many variations of Som Tum and they do not have to use papaya, and instead use other core ingredients as a base.
Som Tum is usually prepared by combining the ingredients in a clay mortar with wodden pestle. First you mix chillies and garlic to lightly crush them and then you mix with the other ingredients to make the sauce. Then add the green papaya and mix it all together!
In Isaan (and Laos), the most popular versions of som tum usually contain a fermented fish paste (pla ra) which adds a rather salty pungent taste. Likewise in Isaan it is very common to add pickled crabs.
The reality is there are so many variations that it is possible to find a version that most people will like. However, if you neglect to include at least 1 chilli we may question whether it really is som tum!
Different Types of Som Tum
No. 1: Som Tum Thai (ส้มตำไทย)
This classic version made from grated papaya, is the one you will find in most restaurants - especially ones overseas or catering to a Western audience. Often grated carrot will be added in addition to the papaya. You can make it as spicy as you want.
No. 2: Use Green Mango - Som Tum Mamuang (ส้มตำมะม่วง)
Instead of papaya this is made with slightly sour and hard green mango.
No. 3: Use Mixed Fruit - Som Tum Polamai (ส้มตำผลไม้)
You can use a variety of fresh fruits including apples, grapes, guava, pineapple. In this version the fruit is usually chopped into small chunks rather than grated.
No. 4: Use Cucumber - Tum Teng (ส้มตำแตง)
Using cucumber makes this a version you can easily make anywhere in the world. You can cut the cucumber think or cut it into batons/
No. 5: Use Guava - Som Tum Farang (ส้มตำฝรั่ง)
Use Guava instead of papaya. You can grate the papaya or cut it into small chucks.
No. 6-9: Use Noodles
No. 6: Use Mama Noodles (Instant Noodles
For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with mama noodles and cucumber.
No. 7: Use Woon Sen (Glass Noodles)
For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with glass noodles, carrots and papaya.
No. 8: Use Sen Chan (Pad Thai Noodles)
For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with Sen Chan noodles and morning glory
No. 9: Use Kanom Jeen (Fermented noodles)
For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with kanom jeen and cucumber. Best extra spicy!
No. 10: Use Lotus or Lily Stems
We are based in the flower market so why not use Lotus Stems. Lotus stems are an authentic ingredient in traditional Thai cooking, so why not.
No. 10: Som Tum Pu Pla Ra (with crab and fermented fish sauce)
If you are from Isaan this is possible the most authentic version of som tum that you can get.
No. 11: Tum Suo (with vermicelli noodles)
This is a noodle based version
No. 12: Use sweetcorn - Som Tum Khao Pod
This is a simple version that can be made anywhere in the world as sweetcorn is readily available in most places.
No. 13: Som Tum Pa (Jungle)
This translates to "jungle" pounded and it includes a random mixture of all sorts of pungent ingredients including crab, khanom jeen noodles, water mimosa (vegetable)...
Som Tum Tard
A few years ago it became fashionable to serve som tum on a big round plate with the som tum in the middle and extra items around the edge. Such extras would be: Moo yor (Vietnamese port sausage), naem (fermented pork sausage), Khai Khem (salted egg), century egg, khep moo (fred pork skin).... What a yummy meal!
Learn to make som tum
Take a Som Tum masterclass as part of a Thai Cooking Class in Bangkok. If you like this article then why not check out our Thai Cooking with a Twist class where we teach 3 different types of Som Tum as part of the class.