Why It Works
- Pounding the ingredients with a wooden pestle coaxes out their aromas, without pulverizing them into a paste.
- Mixing in and lightly pounding green papaya just before serving ensures that it absorbs the dressing but also retains its crunch.
Walk down any bustling street in Thailand and you will hear the rhythmic beat of wooden pestles striking clay mortars as vendors prepare iterations of som tam—pounded salads that are paired with a sour dressing. The most well-known entry in this category is easily som tam Thai, the shredded green papaya salad found in central Thailand that has become synonymous with the term “som tam.” The salad combines crunchy strips of unripe green papaya with fresh chiles, pungent garlic, savory dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, long beans, and tomatoes, all of which are tossed with a salty-sour-sweet dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. It’s everything you could want in a salad—refreshing, light, and quick to prepare.
Tam-style pounded salads are integral to the cuisines of Laos and Isan, and they have become a fast-food, on-the-go item that can now be found all over Thailand and pretty much any place that serves Lao or Thai dishes outside of Southeast Asia. While som tam salads follow the same basic preparation blueprint (more on that later), ingredients and flavor profiles vary from region to region. In Laos and Isan, som tam tends to favor savory and sour notes rather than sweetness, with ingredients like pla ra—a fermented fish sauce known as padaek in Lao—salted crabs, and pickled plums. This recipe is for central Thai-style som tam, which is evenly balanced between sour and sweet, thanks to a generous amount of palm sugar in the dressing. Sweetness and saltiness can vary a good deal between styles, but sour, or “som,” is a requirement.
The other requirement for tam-style salads is a mortar and pestle–specifically a wooden or clay mortar with a wooden pestle. The goal for pounding ingredients for salads is to lightly bruise and break them down to the point that they release their juices but hold onto their crunchy texture. The kind of heavy granite mortar and pestle I use for making a prik gaeng (curry paste) is great for pulverizing fibrous aromatics and dried spices into a fine paste, but it’s not well-suited for pounding tasks that require a lighter touch. The increased volume capacity of a large clay or wooden mortar is ideal for salad-mixing, but despite being larger they are much lighter to maneuver.
As for the salad itself, the star of the show is the green papaya. Green papaya is actually fairly easy to source in the US, and can be found at most Asian grocery stores, especially Southeast Asian markets. While they are unripe papayas, I strongly advise against trying to pick out a green-skinned papaya at a supermarket like Whole Foods, no matter how firm and unripe they feel. Despite their appearance, they are much further along in the ripening process than a true green papaya, and you will find that they are orange and sweet once you cut into them. Like green tomatoes, green papayas are their own thing, harvested for a specific culinary purpose, and shouldn’t be confused with a fruit that has just been picked before being fully ripe in order to survive shipping. When shopping for green papaya, look for fruit that are firm and feel heavy for their size. If the fruit is squishy, put it down and keep searching.
The traditional way to prepare a green papaya for som tam is to peel it and cut it by hand into strips with a sharp knife. I do this by holding the papaya in my non-dominant hand while making a series of parallel cuts running lengthwise on the papaya, and then shaving down across the length of the papaya to create shreds. This method produces perfectly imperfect shreds with interesting texture, a mix of larger, crunchier pieces, and thinner, more delicate ones. The downside to this method is that it’s more time-consuming and it can be a little nerve-wracking for anyone who doesn’t trust themselves completely with a sharp knife.
Luckily, there’s an easy alternative to hand-cut green papaya: you can use a specialized green papaya peeler, like this affordable one from Kiwi. The Kiwi peeler works much in the same way as a Western julienne peeler; it has a classic y-peeler profile, with a ridged tooth blade that produces even strands of papaya when run down the length of the peeled fruit. Restaurants often favor this tool for making som tam because it gives you consistent results, fast. I find that peeler-shredded papaya doesn’t retain its crunch quite as well as knife-cut, and I prefer the varied texture produced with a knife. Whichever method you go with, avoid standard julienne peelers, which create shreds that are too thin, which in turn will result in a soggy som tam.
Once the papaya prep is taken care of, the rest of the salad is a breeze to make. I start by pounding fresh chiles, garlic, and dried shrimp together until they are just slightly broken down. I then add roasted peanuts and pound them slightly before adding softened palm sugar and dissolving it with the pestle by working it around the sides of the mortar. Next, I add long beans and cherry tomatoes, crushing them slightly just to bruise them and release some juices before adding in lime juice and fish sauce. It’s critical to taste for seasoning at this point as once the green papaya goes in, it’s more difficult to adjust.
The dressing should be sour, sweet, and savory all at once, with background heat from the chiles. When the dressing tastes right, I add in the green papaya and work it into the mix by stirring with a spoon in one hand while lightly pounding with the pestle with the other hand. The goal here is to have the green papaya absorb the dressing, while still keeping its crunch, so it’s critical not to pound too aggressively, and to also be ready to serve the salad immediately. The longer the papaya marinates with the dressing, the softer it will become. However, this shouldn’t be an issue; once som tam Thai hits the table, it doesn’t tend to sit for long.
- 2 small garlic cloves (6g)
- 2 to 3 fresh Thai chiles (2 to 3g total), stemmed (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (8g) dried shrimp (see note)
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons (35g) palm sugar, softened (see note)
- 2 tablespoons (30g) roasted unsalted peanuts, divided
- 4 cherry tomatoes (about 2 ounces; 60g), halved
- 2 long beans (about 30g), ends trimmed, cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) fresh lime juice from 2 limes
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) fish sauce
- 2 cups (6 ounces; 170g) shredded green papaya, from 1 green papaya
- Cooked sticky rice, for serving
In a clay or wooden mortar, combine garlic and chiles and pound with wooden pestle until slightly slightly broken down, making sure to keep the pestle as close to the chiles as possible to avoid splattering chile juices over yourself, about 30 seconds. Add dried shrimp and 1 tablespoon (15g) peanuts and continue to pound until slightly broken down, taking care not to over-pound and form a peanut paste, about 30 seconds.
Add palm sugar and continue to pound lightly while also working the pestle in a circular motion while applying gentle pressure to help dissolve the palm sugar, about 30 seconds. Add long beans and pound until slightly broken down, 15 to 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and pound gently just until the tomatoes release their juices, about 15 seconds.
Add lime juice and fish sauce and stir with pestle using a circular motion until well combined and palm sugar is fully dissolved, about 15 seconds. Add green papaya. Holding a large spoon in your non-dominant hand while holding the pestle in your dominant hand, pound down the sides of the mortar (not the center) while simultaneously using the spoon to move the ingredients back and forth in the mortar until ingredients are well combined and green papaya has begun to absorb the dressing, about 30 seconds. Take care not to over-pound the green papaya or it will lose its crisp texture.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon (15g) peanuts and pound gently just until they are slightly broken down. Transfer salad to a serving plate, and serve immediately with sticky rice.
Clay or wooden mortar and wooden pestle.
You can adjust the spiciness of this salad to suit your taste by reducing or increasing the amount of fresh Thai chiles in the recipe.
Dried shrimp can be found in Asian markets and also online.
Palm sugar can be found in Southeast Asian markets, as well as some nationwide supermarkets like HMart, and also online. At room temperature, palm sugar is a solid mass and needs to be softened so that it can be incorporated into the dressing. You can soften palm sugar by microwaving at full power in a microwave-safe bowl for approximately 15 seconds. If you can’t find palm sugar, for this recipe you can substitute with an equal amount of light brown sugar.
Green papaya is an unripe papaya that is pale white/green when peeled. Unlike a ripe orange papaya, green papaya is not sweet, and has a very crisp texture. You can find detailed instructions on how to shred green papaya here.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Green papaya can be shredded in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 24 hours. The finished salad is best enjoyed immediately, as the green papaya will soften considerably the longer it sits in the dressing.