It is almost impossible to live anywhere in Bangkok that is not within walking distance of a som tum (grated fruit or vegetable salad) vendor. While street food lovers frequently rhapsodize over the best bowl of noodles or grilled hunk of meat, it’s som tum that most often finds itself at Thai tables.
And what som tum it is. Although the grated green papaya is the variety that is most popular in (and out of) Thailand, vendors display a wide range of fruits and vegetables with which to make this salad, from cucumbers and long green beans to tart gooseberries and green bananas. The truth is, anything with any sort of crunch is a good base for a grated spicy salad. It’s the dressing that usually stays constant.
Som tum Thai — the type most commonly eaten in Bangkok and abroad — is the kind we are exploring here, with a dressing made of lime juice, fish sauce, and a healthy dose of sugar (be it palm or granulated). A light dusting of roasted peanuts and dried shrimp and you’re done. But if you are the adventurous sort who does not shy away from fishiness (really, the essence of Thai food), there is som tum Lao, tinged with that extra oomph afforded by pla rah, or fermented Thai anchovies, or even som tum nuea (the northern Thai variety), flavored with a bit of nam poo doo (the juice of pulverized and fermented field crabs). I am not a fan of som tum Thai, which I find to be too sweet throughout much of the capital nowadays, but I do have plenty of time for the Isaan version, made with either crunchy fruits or vegetables, or mua (confused), which includes kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).
The som tum Lao and som tum mua shown above hail from Jay Gai, also known as “som tum yib bat” (som tum where you must pick a number), such is the popularity of this stand on Naresuan Road in Udon Thani. Their som tum Lao is rich in anchovy flavor, with a nearly rancid tinge; the som tum mua includes green papaya, bamboo shoot, cherry tomatoes, long beans and snails alongside the kanom jeen. Both are what you expect Isaan-style som tums to be: thick, heady, uncompromising.
That’s not what we’re doing here. Chris and I are starting with the basics, by trying to emulate Jay Gai’s “Thai-style” som tum. With Western cooks in mind, we are using shredded carrot and daikon radish in place of green papaya. The only thing we may be copying from Jay Gai is its propensity (and everyone else’s propensity) for MSG (pong chu rot).
Som tum Thai, inspired by Jay Gai (makes 4 servings)
In the bowl of a mortar with a pestle, pound 3 cloves of garlic with 1-3 Thai chilies (vendors call each chili a “met” and ask customers how many “met” they want in their som tum. Answers usually range from none (“mai sai prik“) to five (“ha“). Mash into a paste.
Add 3 Tablespoons fish sauce, the juice of 2-3 limes, and a Tablespoon of palm sugar or granulated sugar. Taste to correct seasoning. This is your last chance to fix the dressing before all the other ingredients are added to the mortar.
Add a cup of granted carrot, half a cup of grated daikon radish, 3 inches of long beans cut into 5 cm pieces, and 3-5 cherry tomatoes. Mash gently with your pestle to ensure the strands get bruised (nothing is worse than too-crunchy pieces) while scraping the bowl with a large spoon with your other hand.
It’s your decision to add Ajinomoto (to taste) or not, but every Thai I have spoken to insists that it is an essential ingredient, so there it is. We used a light sprinkling on our finished salad before garnishing with crushed roasted peanuts and dried shrimp (both to taste). A platter of fresh veggies — sliced green beans, a wedge of cabbage and some cucumber spears — accompanies the salad. If you want to be really traditional, serve alongside sticky rice and grilled chicken or pork shoulder or, if you want to be like Jay Gai, a bowl of boiled snails.