Mary-Linh Tran

Junior Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

Confession: I didn’t grow up eating salads. While it’s not unusual for children to wince and grimace at a plate full of leafy greens, it took me an embarrassingly long time to get on board with the salad sweethearts of US-American cuisine, like chicken caesar and cobb salad. Another confession: OK, I did eat salads but not anything remotely resembling the aforementioned ones—you know, mountains of iceberg lettuce drenched in a thick, creamy dressing usually made with mayonnaise or yogurt. Don’t get me wrong, as an adult I love these kinds of salads, but the salads of my childhood were light and citrusy with floral notes that knew how to pack a punch. Instead of using fatty bases, they relied on pickled, fermented sauces and pastes to perk up carrots, cucumbers, and daikon. What on earth am I talking about, you ask? Something called gỏi đu đủ in Vietnamese, also known as green papaya salad, or, in its Thai iteration: som tam.

Som tam, in my opinion, embodies the very best flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine—sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar—there are variations of this salad in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, where it is said to have first appeared. Zesty and umami-packed, som tam is a welcome refreshment not just in Southeast Asia, but globally too, where it graces the menus of Thai restaurants all over the world.

The ingredients that make this salad special

The star of this dish is green papaya, which is a papaya that hasn’t ripened to the beautiful orange hue we often find in markets. Eaten on its own, green papaya is watery and a bit foamy, similar to kohlrabi (a great substitute if you can’t find papaya where you live), but dressed in fish sauce, tamarind paste, lime juice, palm sugar (sap from coconut trees), and chili, the papaya transforms into a dazzling ingredient that’s crispy and tart with a touch of spice to liven things up.

Each ingredient of the dressing is vital because each brings its own element to the dish: Fish sauce brings umami, chili adds heat, tamarind paste and lime juice provide tartness to balance out the palm sugar, which warms everything up with a coconut-y sweetness. If you’re stumped on where to find these ingredients, take a stroll to your nearest Asian grocery store. Do note that palm sugar is often sold in blocks or discs, instead of loose like white sugar.

In addition to papaya, som tam generally includes julienned carrots, roasted peanuts, tomatoes, dried shrimp, and green beans to enhance the overall textures of the dish.

The joy of pounding

The tam in som tam means to crush or pound, referring to the dish’s assembly: The ingredients are pounded and mixed in a large mortar and pestle to allow the vegetables to release some of their natural aromas and absorb the surrounding flavors. If you’re not used to working out your arms in this way, it can feel a bit labor-intensive, but it’s incredibly cathartic.

Of course, not everyone has a big mortar and pestle at home, so feel free to toss everything together in a large bowl. My only tip for this method? Use your hands to massage the dressing into the vegetables to get the most flavor out of your ingredients. Another no-mortar method? Add everything to a ziploc bag and gently pound the bag on a counter. I told you, this is a cathartic cooking experience.

A new way to slice

If you’re anything like me, you find julienning to be a chore, especially with bulkier fruits and vegetables. But som tam would not be som tam without the matchstick-thin strips of carrot and papaya. Luckily, there’s a cool Thai trick for slicing papaya. Simply score the fruit then shave off the slices. To learn more about how to master this technique at home, see our video with our chef Christian below, where you’ll also find a recipe to jumpstart your addiction to som tam.

Make som tam salad with Christian

  • 09:16 min.

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