What’s Cooking: The one with som tum, again


Getting ready for som tum

It’s nearing the end of my self-quarantine period, and I have yet to do anything constructive with my time, aside from rererewatching “Friends” on Thai Netflix. So the valuable hours I could have spent making tasty batches of jam (“Friends” season 3, episode 3), learning how to ballroom dance (season 4, episode 4), brushing up on my public speaking skills (season 6, episode 4), or getting divorced (any episode with Ross) have instead been spent scrutinizing all 10 seasons of a 20+year-old television show that I never watched back when it was actually on TV, because there was a time when I was actually cool.

But there are times when even *I* tire of seeing Ross throw a hissy fit over his half-eaten Thanksgiving sandwich. Those are the moments in which I threaten to actually do something. My friend from Malaysia, Eddie, braved my potential cooties long enough to come over to learn how to make a good batch of som tum (grated Isaac-style salad) with pla rah (fermented Thai anchovies) from our super-housekeeper, Somporn.

A Roi Et native, Somporn is actually a superlative cook of just about everything, but her number one dishes, in my humble opinion, are her deep-fried chicken wings and her som tum. The chicken wings I’ll save for another day, because I am afraid of heating up the whole vat of oil necessary to make the wings (it’s just so scary!) Som tum, however, just involves the potential cutting off of one’s fingers.


Grating the green papaya the right way

We live in a time of amazing technological innovations, like the julienne peeler, which allows you to cut the long, thin strands that make up som tum. The problem with this tool is that the strands are too thin to add the kind of heft to the salad that makes it really sing. You need to cut up the papaya (or any other vegetable, because som tum can be made from pretty much anything) by hand.

Tak-tak-tak-tak goes the knife into the papaya, scoring the side of the fruit with thin vertical cuts that are then peeled off of the papaya with the knife edge pointing outward. Anything else you choose to add: in our case, carrots, a bit of Thai eggplant, maybe even a bit of tomato skin like the time when Monica did that cooking demo and said she would julienne her tomatoes. Add some cut-up long beans and a bit of lime peel and you’ve got a great approximation of what you’d get from a very good food cart.

Some things to ponder as you are making this som tum:

  1. Always do this with a mortar and pestle. Make the dressing first and add the salad ingredients after. Pound with intention like you are Rachel on a break, not gently like you are Phoebe with a massage client.
  2. We use tamarind juice (mixed with a few teaspoonfuls of hot water) plus the lime juice because the salad lasts longer that way. When it’s just lime juice, it gets bland more quickly, just like Chandler’s personality in season 10.
  3. If you are making this to go, always add the dressing at the last minute, like when Rachel shows up at Ross’s second wedding.

Foolproof Som Tum Pla Rah (the superior som tum, in my opinion)


  • juice of 1 lime
  • 3 Tbsps of tamarind pulp, thinned out with a few teaspoons of hot water
  • 2 Tbsps of pla rah (we buy bottled, made from boiled anchovies only)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 Tbsp of palm sugar to even out the flavors
  • Fresh bird’s eye chilies (between 2, my standard family level, to 20, the level preferred by Chef Prin Polsuk at Samrub for Thai!!!)
  • Salad ingredients: Anything crunchy and julienne-able, e.g. 1/3 of a small green papaya, half of a large carrot, 3-4 plum tomatoes, handful of cut-up long beans. (It actually doesn’t have to be julienne-able either. Corn kernels are popular, as are cut-up long beans on their own. They just have to be poundable.)

Mix all the dressing ingredients together in the mortar. Taste to adjust seasoning. Then add the salad ingredients and pound with the pestle hard enough to bruise the strands (in the papaya’s case, to release some of the sap into the dressing). Mix well. Upend onto your serving dish and eat as soon as you can.


A blurry photo of the som tum. I was in a hurry

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