It took a while for me to love the food rather than just like it. Tiny, incredibly hot chilis looked deceptively like mild string beans as they floated in bowls of soup, until I picked them up and munched on them. My host sister, Kei, liked introducing me to foods like congealed blood in curry (“It’s like jelly!” she said, helpfully.) Fish sauce was weird.
But the complex flavors drew me in, and the spiciness became an asset, and then a necessity. Spicy Northern Thai foods gradually burned off my taste buds, and rewarded me with extra flavor, until I just thought it was normal for my eyes and nose to run at every meal, and I couldn’t taste food that wasn’t spicy. My friend Phueng promised me, as she sprinkled extra fish sauce with hot chilis onto our fried rice, “You’ll miss fish sauce a lot when you go back to America. It’s where all the delicious flavor comes from.” She was right; fish sauce is the main source of umami in Thai foods.
There were so many favorite dishes, using fish sauce to enhance sweet, sour, spicy, subtle and powerful flavors. The curried, fishy khanom jean, served over soft, fermented rice noodles. Kao soi, an addictive, spicy red curry noodle soup with pickled vegetables and chicken. Gai yang, the tangy barbecued chicken sold at the market near where I lived.
Gai yang is meant to be eaten with sticky rice and pinches of som tam, a tangy salad of shredded green papaya pounded in a large mortar and pestle with lime juice, fish sauce, tomatoes, garlic, green beans, chilis and sugar (hold the peanuts, eggplant and shrimp, please). I bought som tam daily from a woman who set up a little folding table at the edge of the market, and pounded som tam in her mortar and pestle, assembled to order. I ate it picnic-style on the floor with friends P’Nu Dang and P’O, barely noticing the spice as my eyes ran with happy tears.
Like most converts, though, I made the mistake of thinking that formulas, or recipes, were unalterable doctrine. Som tam was made the way the woman in the market made it, and so I could never make som tam in America; where was I going to find green papaya? Or a large-enough mortar and pestle? Besides, I like to eat local produce as much as possible; nobody in Washington State grows green papayas.
Then, here in Seattle, I went to my Thai friend Sani’s apartment for lunch, where she and her friends served me carrot som tam with fresh tomatoes. Carrot som tam! The flavors tasted just right, even though with its bright orange color it looked nothing like the pale green mixture that the woman at my Chiang Mai market made. “Sure,” Sani and her friends assured me. “You can make som tam out of anything. Apples, vegetables. Fruit som tam, som tam polamai, is really popular.”
I was inspired. I went home and pulled CSA carrots and yellow summer squash out of my refrigerator. An apple that had to be used up. Some romano beans. Some tomatoes. A lemon cucumber. And set to work.
Som tam has two kinds of vegetables or fruits: the ones you shred for the base, and the ones you chop and pound when you add them in.
The shredding is best done with a food processor top-blade or mandoline, something that’s going to keep the shredded strips fairly intact and stiff, so they can retain some shape when they’re pounded. Just a word to the wise if you’re using a food processor: Pay attention to how much you’re shredding. I blithely threw in four enormous carrots, an apple, and two squashes and it made a lot more som tam than I was expecting. But it was so good, there was very little left in the bowl.
Local Vegetable Som Tam (Thai shredded salad with lime)
Shredding vegetables/fruits — use any mixture of:
- 2-3 carrots (any color; mixed is pretty. Carrots make a great base for som tam, with other things added in)
- 1 apple and/or very firm pear
- 2 summer squash (yellow squash, zucchini, etc)
You may substitute in vegetables like:
- 1-2 young turnips
- 1-2 radishes (mixed with other things; a bit too strong on their own as a base)
- 1 large or 2 medium golden or chioggia beets, ideally mixed with apples or carrots
Added vegetables (not shredded)
- 2-3 tomatoes, cut in wedges
- 1 cup string beans or romano beans cut in 1-2″ pieces
- 1 lemon cucumber, in slices or wedges
- Other additions — you can add any fresh summer vegetables or some fruits like peas, snap-peas, eggplant, cucumbers, plums (the tangy flavor would be great)…
- 2 T or more fish sauce / nam pla (to taste)
- Juice of 2 limes
- 2-4 cloves garlic, pressed and then chopped fine
- 1-2 T sugar or honey (to taste). Palm sugar, which isn’t very sweet, is traditional.
- 1-7 Thai chili peppers (to taste)
(Optional: traditional som tam also has dried shrimps and peanuts, but due to allergies and dietary restrictions, I left both out.)
- Something for shredding — I recommend a food processor with top shredding blade or a mandoline
- A wide bottom bowl and a heavy glass or mug, OR a very large mortar and pestle.
1. Shred all your shredding vegetables/fruits. Set aside.
2. Chop your chilis and garlic. (A tip for avoiding getting the oil on your fingers: Hold the stem in your fingers and use a good pair of scissors to cut the thin slices into your bowl.)
3. In the bottom of a wide bowl or a very large mortar, use a pestle or heavy mug/glass to pound your sauce of fish sauce, garlic, sugar, lime, chilis.
4. Chop tomatoes, green beans, and any additional vegetables.
5. Mix your shredded vegetable and additional vegetables into the sauce.
6. Pound the entire salad. You’re bruising and breaking down some of the structure of both the shredded and the chopped vegetables, which allows the flavors of the sauce to permeate. This is fun and cathartic, and makes the salad taste better.
7. Taste and adjust the flavorings as desired. You want the lime to make it very tangy, the spice to wake you up, the garlic to make your mouth water.
Serve plain, with jasmine rice, or with barbecued chicken (gai yang) and Thai sticky rice. A wedge of sweet cabbage also compliments the spiciness nicely.