A salad isn't always exciting. But in Southeast Asia, it's a completely different story – Thai cuisine really takes salad to the next level. Som tam really is something to write home about.
The green papaya salad – or som tam on Thai menus – is a slightly spicy, extra crunchy dish with a distinctive nature that uses shredded unripened papaya as its base. Served traditionally at Taramind Thai, fiery chilli, salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar and sour lime give the salad its complex flavour.
Green papaya salad is huge in South-East Asia. You'll find it everywhere from Thailand to Vietnam, but it's actually from Laos. Known as tam som in Lao culture, its literal translation means 'pounded sour', hinting at the taste and preparation process.
To make som tam, the ingredients are mixed and bundled into a mortar. And before you think that a som tam salad sounds exceptionally sweet, it's most definitely a savoury dish. Unripe, the papaya is almost sour and creates a great crunch.
So why do we see this as Thai dish? When Laotians emigrated for work, they took the dish with them – particularly to Thailand. In typical Thai style, they put their own spicy mark on it with a generous helping of fiery bird's eye chilli, and this heat is often the reason we think the dish is Thai.
But that little Thai twist isn't the only spin-off of the dish. As the green papaya salad switched hands, sweeter, spicier, and sourer versions popped up everywhere from Cambodia to right here in the west. In fact, with each little change to the original recipe, a series of sweet adaptations have been added – even in Laos.
Crushed peanuts are a winning addition, but sometimes swapping papaya for unripe mango, apple or carrot can also work a treat. In Thailand, that little switch might be for cucumber – creating tam maak taeng – or banana, making tam maak kuai. Regardless of which fruit or vegetable is featured, the salad is commonly served with sticky rice and grilled chicken, or stirred up with rice noodles.
Perfect as a cold starter or a great spicy side to complement your chosen mains, som tam's light freshness means it works well as a delicate appetiser. But if you want something full of heat and signature crunch, order it with a side of sticky rice for a main course.
At Tamarind Thai, they offer up a few som tam options for your Asian cuisine adventure. Keep things simple and go for their house Som Tam, with added tender prawns and crunchy cashew nuts for an extra helping of texture. Vegetarians can get in on the fun too with Som Tom Jeh – a classic green papaya salad with a handful of cashew nuts for a protein-packed punch.
For som tam as a starter, snack, or main meal of its own, let Deliveroo bring it to your door.