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Som Tam is a Thai spicy salad made from shredded green papaya, Thai chili, green beans, cherry tomatoes, in a tangy salty lime sauce. Som Tam literary means "pounded sour” in Thai, referring to pounding or crushing something sour as a main ingredient.
In Thailand, you will find Som Tam vendors use various seasonal fruits or vegetables with a tart flavor, but green papaya is the most popular ingredient. The origin of Som Tam is unclear, but it is believed that the dish originated in Laos and the Isan region (Northeast of Thailand) and became a popular treat in Bangkok after the WWII - when majority of Isan people migrated to work in the capital and brought the local dishes with them.
Som Tam was adopted and gained popularity among Bangkok residents, but they also needed to tone down the pungent flavor by adding palm or coconut sugar and roasted peanuts. The modified recipe is commonly known as “Som Tam Thai” with a sweeter and milder taste and coconut sugar also gives a subtle, caramel flavor that makes it unique.
Across Thailand, you will find many types of Som Tam being sold in one shop with different elements. But beyond these variations, the main ingredients contain fresh, shredded green papaya, Bird's eye chilis, green beans, cherry tomatoes, fresh garlics, and seasoned with fish sauce and lime juice. Like we mentioned above, there are many types of Som Tam to choose, therefore, it is useful to know your Som Tam before making any order.
Also, you should pay attention to some ingredients as they may contain food allergens like peanuts or shellfish.
In the Isan version, Pla ra sauce (fermented fish sauce) is a common ingredient to use, while the Central recipe usually adds dried shrimps, roasted peanuts and coconut sugar.
There are also versions that use unripe mangoes, apples, cucumbers, carrots and other firm vegetables. Another popular option is to use rice vermicelli or other types of rice noodles in the dish.
It is common in Thailand for customers to order Som Tam tailored to their tastes. Thai people like to have their Som Tam spicy by standard, so be prepared when you order it. If you know you cannot handle spicy food well, it is useful to learn how to order Thai food in Thai.
Som Tam itself is nutritious, high in fiber, and low in calories since the main ingredients like raw papaya, green beans, tomatoes and peanuts are all natural and do not have excessive amounts of calories.
The dish also contains vegetables and herbs that can improve your immune system. A general saying is that Som Tam is healthy unless you add too much sugar, and salty seasoning like fish sauce or Pla ra.
As always, moderation is key when consuming anything. This salad can be made vegan if you skip dried shrimps, and replace fish sauce with light soy sauce, salt or vegan fish sauce in the dressing.
Som Tam is usually served cold, with other side vegetables like fresh cabbages or long green beans. You can eat the salad by itself, but it is recommended to eat with sticky rice or rice vermicelli.
Grilled or fried dishes like Gai Yang (Grilled chicken), Pla Pao (Grilled fish), Khor Moo Yang (Grilled pork) or crispy pork rinds also go well with Som Tam – these non-spicy dishes will take away the sting of the hot chilies and cool your mouth down.
However, if you can handle the spiciness, you can order other spicy dishes that complement Som Tam flavor like larb, Nam Tok (Spicy pork salads) or Soup Nor Mai (Isan Bamboo shoot salad) for a full Isan feast experience.
Traditionally, Som Tam is pounded with a mortar and pestle but if you do not have those tools, you can use a food processor or small chopper. Here is our Som Tam Thai recipe you can easily cook at home.
Som Tam ingredients: underripe papaya (or mango), carrot, green beans, cherry tomatoes, chilies, garlic, fish sauce, coconut sugar, tamarind paste, lime juice, chopped peanuts.
Peel the papaya and the carrot. Use the largest grater to grate papaya and carrot. Or use a sharp knife to cut the fruit and carrot into julienne strips.
Pound the garlic and chilies together with a pestle and mortar. Cut the green beans into short lengths, put into the mortar and pound very lightly, just to soften and bruise them.
If you use a food processor, mince up garlic and the chilies to make spice paste. Cut the green beans and crush them lightly with chopper knife. Place the contents into a mixing bowl.
Add the coconut sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and tamarind paste into the mixing bowl.
Add the papaya, carrot and cherry tomatoes into the bowl.
Mix all the contents together. Sprinkle the salad with chopped roasted peanuts before serving.
Get a full list of ingredients and learn how to cook Som Tam Salad here.Get recipe