Som Tam is a bright, refreshing salad you’ll find on just about every street corner in Bangkok, made with classic Thai ingredients like palm sugar, roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, and thinly sliced green papaya. The ingredients are pounded together with a mortar and pestle, bringing out the intensity of the aromatics and letting the green papaya absorb the tangy, sweet, and salty dressing.
Our recipe takes inspiration from the method and flavors of Som Tam, but we used ingredients you’re more likely to find in any Filipino grocery store. We added green mango, which is seen in some versions of Thai Som Tam, and swapped out traditional ingredients like palm sugar and lime juice with brown sugar and calamansi, but this recipe is flexible. Add or remove ingredients to suit your taste and play around with the ratios to find your perfect balance.
Still, we do have one non-negotiable: Whatever you do, you have to use a mortar and pestle.
Why do I need a mortar and pestle?
The mortar and pestle, called khrok (ครก) and sak (สาก), are essential tools in Thai kitchens, particularly in recipes such as Som Tam, as well as the curry and chili pastes that are used in many iconic Thai dishes. They’re used so often that Thai kitchens will often have two types:
- One made of stone designed especially for grinding up pastes and smashing harder ingredients.
- A lighter kind, made of baked-clay with a hardwood pestle, for more gentle applications like bruising tender ingredients like green papaya.
For this recipe, we recommend the baked-clay mortar and wooden pestle, but the heavy stone kind works too, as long as you work with a light hand. This is especially important when you’re pounding the green papaya.
We hear what you’re thinking: Can’t I just dice my ingredients, or use a food processor? A mortar and pestle may sound tedious, but pounding the ingredients with a pestle releases natural flavors and brings out aromas in ways you just can’t get from normal chopping. It’s the key to the vibrant, punchy flavors that pop out in this dish.
Prepping the papaya
Som Tam calls for thinly sliced green papaya, about 3-5 inches in length. Traditionally, the papaya is peeled and cut by hand to make irregular shreds, providing a variation in texture with larger, crunchier pieces, as well as smaller, thinner slices–we prefer this method! But if you like delicate, uniform slices, you can also use a mandoline, or a peeler made especially for shredding papaya.
Whichever method you choose, it’s worth noting that this salad is best eaten fresh. The papaya may grow soggy if you let it sit too long, but we’re not too worried about that. This salad will be gone from your table before you know it.