Healthy salads shouldn’t always be bland and boring. Skip the leafy green salad for a second. Take a break from the mayo-heavy coleslaw. If you’re looking to make your dining experience fresh and spicy, Som Tum Thai Green Papaya Salad is ready to excite your taste buds.
Making Spicy Thai Green Papaya Salad
Is Sum Tum Thai?
Unknown to many, green papaya salad actually originates from Laotian cuisine. Its main ingredients, namely chili and green papaya, were brought to Laos by Portuguese spice traders.
By 1950, workers from Laos began coming to Isaan, the northeast province of Thailand, where they set up food stalls near their settlement. Then came the construction of the “Friendship Highway” during the Vietnam War which connected northeast Thailand to the city of Bangkok. More and more Laotian migrants took this opportunity to look for work in Bangkok as Thailand headed into an economic boom in the 1980s.
Naturally, the migration resulted in a huge demand for traditional Laotian dishes. The people of Bangkok eventually took a liking to spicy food that originated from their neighboring country. The Thai government took advantage of the 1980 economic boom to promote Thai food to the world. Among the chosen dishes was the pride of Laos and Isaan cuisine’s Som Tum Papaya Salad.
The Difference Between Thai Papaya Salad vs. Laos Papaya Salad
If you were to ask us, both versions are equally good. Each variant boasts of qualities and flavors that you won’t find in your typical green salad. Here are some of their distinctions but if we were given the chance, we’ll take one of each!
Their names differ depending on their origin.
The name “Som tum” is generally used as a common term for any type of green papaya salad. However, Som Tum is used to refer only to the Thai version of the green papaya salad. Som means “sour” and tum refers to the sounds from the pounding of the mortar and pestle.
On the other hand, the Lao version of green papaya salad is actually called “tham mak hoong”, which literally means “pounded papaya”.
The original Laos Som Tum had a stronger and spicier taste.
The original recipe is very generous in its use of chopped hot bird’s eye chili. Adding to its explosive taste are pungent fermented fish sauce, crabs, and sometimes insects.
On the other hand, the Thai version that the government promoted during the economic boom has mellow taste to make it more palatable to tourists.
Flavor versus texture
The fish sauce used in the dressing of the Laos version alone already offers much more depth in flavor than its Thai counterpart.
However, the Thai version’s ingredient list includes crushed roasted peanuts for added texture.
If you’re up for the combination of umami from fermented fish sauce or shrimp paste and the heat from the chili, go for the Lao-style Som Tum. If you’re looking for something lighter and nuttier in flavor, go for the Thai version.
Green Papaya Salad Main Ingredients
Som Tum is where you can find a harmonious blend of Thai cuisine’s five main tastes thanks to its 5 key ingredients. These ingredients are gently pounded and tossed in a mortar and pestle. The process extracts and combines the flavorful juices of each ingredient, resulting in an all-in-1 salad with a dressing that has a complex flavor profile.
1. Savory Green Papaya
Compared to sweet ripe papaya, green papaya is actually savory in taste. Its texture is also firm and crunchy allowing it to withstand pounding in the mortar and retain its shredded shape. The key to keeping your julienned green papaya firm is to soak it in ice cold water for about 10-15 minutes before prepping your Som Tum.
2. Spicy Bird’s Eye Chili
Chili takes the spotlight on several other Thai dishes, including Tom Yum Kung, Pad Ka Prao, and more. It’s not a surprise that Som Tum also uses chili for this recipe. In fact, handfuls of chili is added by most locals.
Along with protein selections like fermented crabs, fish sauce offers an addictive briny taste. Mixed with chili, lime juice, and sugar, you've got a salad dressing that's bursting with complex flavors. If you’re looking to make a Vegan Som Tum, you may opt to switch your fish sauce with soy sauce.
4. Sour Tamarind Juice
As the name “Som Tum” suggests, sourness is the dominant flavor in Thai-style Som Tum. Tamarind juice gives your salad a splash of freshness and tang that’s simply unmissable. Lime juice also works as a tamarind juice alternative.
5. Sweet Palm Sugar
Since this is a healthy Thai food, low-glycemic palm sugar is used to balance everything together. Even with coconut sap as its main ingredient, it gives a mild caramel flavor that not only sweetens but also deepens the taste of your salad. In case you don’t have it, brown sugar is a good palm sugar alternative.
Types of Som Tum
Som Tum is a very flexible and beginner-friendly side dish. You don’t have to confine yourself to the five main ingredients listed above. There are several other ingredients that you can toss and pound in the mix. Here’s a quick list of what the locals are enjoying in Thailand which you can try in your homes too!
Som Tum Variations
1. Som Tum Thai – The popular Thai variety with crushed grilled peanuts
2. Som Tam Pu – comes with a pungent fermented rice paddy crabs
3. Som Tum Capote – Uses steamed sweetcorn as the main ingredient instead of green papaya
4. Som Tum Polamai / Tam phonlamai ruam – Uses other mixed diced fruits instead of green papaya, like guava, dragonfruit, melon, apples, etc.
5. Tam mamuang pla haeng thot – Uses green mangoes and dried anchovies, usually served during mango harvest season
6. Tam maphrao on sen mi krop – Uses coconut meat and deep-fried rice noodles
What to serve with Som Tum?
If you’ve been looking for an opportunity to try Thai sticky rice, this is it! Since green papaya salad offers a burst of flavors, Thai sticky rice is a great pairing to keep all the flavors balanced and less overwhelming to the taste buds. Its chewy texture also allows you to savor the taste of each ingredient of your green papaya salad. Learn more about Thai sticky rice through our review here!
Make it a complete and filling meal with bbq chicken! Take a break from the usual coleslaw or typical green salad and complement your roasted meal with a refreshing Thai papaya salad instead!
Thai-Style Som Tum Recipe
Som Tum Green Papaya Salad might be a side dish but it certainly gives off big “main dish” energy. We’re sharing a Som Tum Thai recipe from none other than Hot Thai Kitchen that features both tamarind and lime juice for that extra tang and is topped with roasted peanuts. It’s fun. It’s messy. It’s delicious!
Fun and Flavorful Thai-Style Som Tum
Som Tum Thai is a healthy Thai salad dish that offers a burst of spicy, tangy, sweet, and savory flavors. Featuring both tamarind and lime juice, this recipe offers a mouth-tingling sourness that's best enjoyed with Thai sticky rice and BBQ chicken.
1 ½ cups julienned green papaya, soaked in iced water then drained
2 cloves garlic
Thai chilies, to taste
1 ½ tbsp palm sugar, finely chopped, packed
2-3 long beans, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 tbsp roasted peanuts
1 heaping tbsp small dried shrimp, roughly chop if you have large ones
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
2 tsp tamarind juice
1 ½ tbsp fish sauce
½ cup grape tomato halves or tomato wedges
In a large mortar and pestle, pound garlic and chilies together.
Mash in palm sugar until you get a wet paste consistency.
Add the long beans and pound until broken apart.
Add dried shrimp and peanuts. Pound to slightly break the peanuts.
Stir in fish sauce, tamarind juice, and lime juice. Mix until sugar is dissolved.
Add the tomatoes and bruise slightly to squeeze a little juice.
Toss in the shredded papaya.
Top with more peanuts and serve with Thai sticky rice and glazed BBQ chicken.