Som Tum or green papaya salad has to be one of the most quintessential Thai dishes. Go to any Thai restaurant outside of Thailand and I guarantee it’ll be on your menu. Walk around Bangkok and you’ll soon start to recognise the pestle and mortar sound of street vendors pounding the incredible array of ingredients that make up this refreshing, crunchy, spicy goodness: green (unripe) papaya, carrot, fish sauce, palm sugar, tomato, thai aubergines, long beans, dried prawns, peanuts – the list goes on!
It’s also popular in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam - although the Thai version is most definitely the most famous. Food historians credit Laos as the inventor of this fabulous dish, which makes sense, considering it’s one of the most common features of Isaan cuisine – the food eaten in the northeastern part of Thailand near its border with Laos.
Meanwhile back in Bangkok, last week I had the special privilege of being hosted at the most celebrated Som Tum joint in the capital – Madam Som Tum. Madam aka Nicky, the owner of this one-of-a-kind establishment, confessed that this has been a life-long passion – she could rustle up a Som Tum at the tender age of 7. From watching her mother grind, pound and chop every day, she patented her unique recipe and turned this ‘taste of home cooking’ into an institution.
Nicky is herself unique in her total and utter devotion to the authenticity of Thai cuisine. No ingredient is ever compromised, everything is so beautifully fresh – and organic where possible. Each dish is meticulously taste tested on a daily basis, and everything – and I really mean everything – is made from scratch.
This was the first time I had ever heard of a Thai restaurant making its own fish sauce! Nicky cheerfully boasted that her local customers beg her to sell this heavenly fish ambrosia by the bottle but she insists that she would never, ever do this. They roast their own peanuts – approximately 4 kg (!) per day – only use 100% palm sugar and even the papaya is specially sourced.
And my goodness you can sure taste the difference!
Nicky admits that although her Som Tum is extremely popular, people also rave about her grilled chicken leg due to the intoxicating 8-hour marinade it undergoes before being cooked. And judging by the fact that the restaurant’s lunchtime crowd was 90% Thai, suffice to say that Som Tum is as authentic as it gets.
As I tucked into the most incredibly colourful and perfumed feast of salads, grilled pork neck all washed down with fresh Thai lime or manao soda, I asked my inspirational host the secret to her Som Tum – it was truly unlike any I had ever tasted before in Thailand.
But all I got was an elusive wink – ‘It’s my mother’s recipe’.