Papaya Bok-Bok: Thailand’s Renowned Som Tam
It’s a hot and sweaty afternoon, your blood-sugar is crashing, and you have only 15 minutes to grab something quick and easy to eat on the street. There’s no real question here – it has to be the spicy papaya salad known as som tam, or jokingly as “papaya bok-bok”.
What Is it?
Som tam is green papaya salad, made by pounding the shredded fruit and other ingredients with a mortar and pestle. Papaya trees literally grow like weeds across Thailand, but the Isaan people (North-easterners) seem to have been the first group to use the under ripe fruits like green vegetables. At least, they get the credit for this dish which is now found across the country and in Thai restaurants across the globe. Though there are nearly as many varieties as there are Thai people, the usual taste signature of this dish is sweet and sour, and SPICY!
What’s It made From?
The basic ingredient in som tam is papaya (malagaw in Thai). It’s peeled, held in the hand and chopped to pieces, then sliced off the mass of the fruit. Some people use vegetable graters and even machines to shred the crunchy green goodness, but purists will tell you that it all has to be done by hand with a rather large knife. Preferably by an old lady or a fat ladyboy the best tam-ers, according to stereotype. The papaya is pounded with salt or fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, garlic, sour tomatoes, and halved limes (juice and skin). Then comes the question, “How many chillies?” (ow phrik kee met?). The brave foreigner will try 2-3 chillies, much to the amusement of the Thais in line, who will then order something mild, like 15 chillies.
Other common ingredients used to add a bit of bitterness or astringency are “Thai olives” (ma-gok), yard-long beans (thooa yao), and small round eggplants/aubergines which actually look like eggs.
You Put WHAT In?
So that was the basic recipe, and it’s enough to make you sweat your pants off, but that’s just not good enough for discerning Thai people. Like any other great dish, there are regional varieties and personal tastes. In the North and Northeast they like it more sour/bitter than their Central and Southern counterparts who’ll go much sweeter. But beyond that there are variations in ingredients that force some major sub-categorizing. Here are the most common types:
Tam Thai – This is the best-known example of som tam and the one most easily exported. Take the basic recipe and top with crushed peanuts and dried teeny shrimps. Nothing too dangerous there!
Tam Laos – Not for everyone. This variety is called “Laos” as it includes that distinctly Laos ingredient, plaa raa. Isaan people, ethnically more Laos than Thai, have preserved fish for centuries by pounding it raw with salt and fermenting it in clay pots. Don’t misunderstand – they’ve been doing this for centuries, not that any individual batch lasts that long, though it smells like it. Plaa raa is dark, sour, and tangy and is the Southeast Asian equivalent of really, really stinky cheese.
Tam Korat – Korat, being the large gateway city that it is, naturally needs its own som tam which is a combination of Central and Isaan styles. Tam korat includes shrimp, peanuts, plaa raa, and crabs.
Tam Puu (AKA tam puu plaa raa) – Another variety made special with plaa raa, tam puu also includes steamed or pickled crabs (puu). These small field crabs are pounded into the mix, shells and all, so it comes out a bit crunchy.
Tam Paa – This version seems like a huge mess, with the addition of ingredients such as squid, bamboo shoots, bitter gatin seeds, pickled vegetables, fresh rice noodles, fried pork skin, peanuts, and boiled snails. However, bean sprouts are necessary to give a characteristic crunch and fresh taste. Paa means forest, and when you’re out in the woods you put in just about anything you can find!
Tam Sooa – This bulked up version of tam laos includes a healthy wallop of fresh, thin rice noodles. You don’t need sticky rice to make a meal of this!
Tam Thooa – Replace the papaya completely with thinly sliced yard-long beans (very much like green beans) and you’ve got this common green salad.
Tam Phonlamai – Phonlamai means fruit, so the papaya is replaced by other crunchy fruits cut in chunks, like guava, apple, and melons. Usually no fermented fish in this one!
How to Eat Som Tam
Once you decide which salad you want, it’s time to think accompaniments. Som tam is usually eaten with sticky rice (khao niow), which is a very dense, sticky grain that is easily rolled into balls. Roll a ball of rice, dip it into your som tam, pinching up a bit of it, and pop it in your mouth. Simple! In Isaan, the holy trinity is som tam, khao niow, gai yang, the last being grilled chicken.
Whatever you eat it with, som tam is a Thai delight not to be missed!