Spicy Thai green papaya salad is known as som tam, a local favorite in Thailand. Shredded green papaya soak up the sauce, add shredded carrots for color, Thai chilies for spice, fish sauce for saltiness, lime juice and tamarind for tartness, shrimp paste for pungency and umami, and garlic rounds out the flavors. Bring it all together with a mortar and pestle and magically it turns into a colorful, mouth-watering salad that is great with a meal or healthy as a snack.
Here in the United States, you can find spicy papaya salad at Thai restaurants, but more often than not, they tend to be mild both in flavor and in spiciness. However, if you make it at home, you can make it as spicy and pungent as you like, just as you would find it in Thailand. For those who make papaya salad often, you can make it easier on yourself by premixing the fish sauce, tamarind, shrimp paste, and fermented fish (pla ra / padaek)
in large quantity (in proper proportions, of course). Store it in a glass jar and it'll keep refrigerated indefinitely due to the high sodium content. When you're ready to make a batch of papaya salad, just add 4 tablespoons or so of this concoction instead of individually measuring out the above ingredients. All other ingredients should be used fresh.
Here's how to shred green papaya and carrots for som tam. First, peel the green papaya. The skin is thick. It helps if you use a sharp peeler with a broad blade. Once peeled, rinse and dry papaya with paper towels so it will not be slippery to grasp. Then we use a KIWI BRAND julienne slicer / shredder as pictured below to shred the papaya in long even strokes. This shredder is a product of Thailand, easy to use, made of stainless steel, stays sharp, and makes beautiful even shreds. You might find it at your local Asian market. Beware of generic imitators, though, sporting similar baby blue handles but whose blades simply don't measure up.
A mortar and pestle is a staple in almost every Thai kitchen. And the bigger, the better. Weathered clay mortars and wooden pestles are typical, but aluminum mortars have had some popularity because they're lightweight and durable. The shape and materials of these mortars and pestles are specialized for pounding actions, not so much for grinding as granites are.
When buying fish sauce, we like a Thai brand fish sauce that doesn't have monosodium glutamate (MSG) listed as an ingredient. Even though we use a little MSG in this recipe, we like to be able to control the amount used. If you're sensitive to MSG, watch out for hydrolyzed vegetable protein too. It's just another form of glutamate. Even if you're not sensitive to MSG, we find that some brands use too much MSG for our liking. For that reason and because we use fish sauce in other dishes where we don't want the MSG content, we like the humble (and cheap) Lucky brand fish sauce. Every brand of fish sauce has a different sodium content, so if you're using a different brand, check its sodium content and adjust the amount of fish sauce to be used accordingly. See below for Lucky brand fish sauce sodium content.
Lucky brand fish sauce. Ingredients: Anchovy extract, salt, sugar, water.
Nutrition Facts: Serving size 1 TBSP (15 g)/ Sodium (1060 mg)
(Net: 23 fl oz) Product of Thailand
Many people think "som tam" is synonymous with green papaya salad, but it refers to the method of preparation, not the main ingredient itself. Although green papaya is the most popular variation, this dish isn't limited to just green papaya. Popular substitutions include carrots, cucumbers, tart green mangoes, or Chinese long beans and all are valid variations in their own right.
Sour, sweet, salty, spicy, and pungent goodness. Here is our recipe for a tasty, properly authentic som tam papaya salad. Just a whiff will make you salivate.