Som tam is the intensely flavorful green papaya salad made-to-order at street-side stalls in northeastern Thailand. Closer to home, you can find it on the menu at most Thai eateries, and occasionally at those specializing in Vietnamese or Laotian/Hmong foods.
My first taste of som tam was five or so years ago at a market in St. Paul, Minnesota, the sleepy sister city of Minneapolis. (Not as curious a place to encounter an authentic version when you learn that the Twin Cities are home to one of the largest populations of southeast Asian immigrants and refugees in the country.) My salad was prepared to-order in the traditional very large clay mortar with a wooden pestle practically the size of a baseball bat used to bash and mash shreds of unripe green papaya with snake (green) beans, chunks of tomato, peanuts, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind, fresh chilli peppers, and the occasional sprinkling of tiny dried shrimp.
When the young woman stopped her mashing to ask my preferred level of heat, I responded something along the lines of “make me sweat a little.” Her look insinuated this might be a mistake, but I nodded to confirm my decision — one that seemed less wise as a mess of chillies went tumbling into the mortar. No going back now. We finished our conversation about her returning home to Vietnam over the summer, and she handed me the salad in a large styrofoam cup.
The initial bite was fierce in the best possible way. She certainly dialed it up with those chillies, but it wasn’t so overwhelming that I couldn’t enjoy the contrasting flavors and textures. It’s an impressive feat, and her som tam was enough for me to wish for a mountain of frequent flier miles and an unexpired passport. It immediately became one of my “must-order foods”: if it’s on the menu, I’m ordering it. Purely for research and comparison purposes, of course.
As someone who loves to experiment in the kitchen, and will likely never make it to southeast Asia for a truly authentic version of som tam, I was more than eager to try my own hand at home.