Tuesday, November 30, 2010

2 Recipe #204: Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)

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Green papaya salad, or som tam (ส้มตำ) in Thai, is a very popular spicy-sweet salad eaten throughout Thailand, which originated in north-eastern Thailand (in Laotian-speaking Issan). Som tam literally means "sour pounded" in Thai, which is appropriate considering how the dish is made. :) Also known as tam bak hung (ตำบักหุ่ง), som tam (sometimes also written som tum or som dum) is traditionally made with a large clay mortar & a wooden pestle.

I know it probably sounds tremendously old-fashioned to make this recipe with a mortar & pestle when one has their pick of modern kitchen equipment, but it's really the best way to make this dish, as you want its many different flavors to be literally pounded into the papaya. For the preparation of this particular salad, nothing else but a mortar & pestle will do. The object isn't to completely pulverize (or rather, obliterate!) the food, as one would in a blender or food processor, but rather to mash the heck out of the initially-added ingredients while being gentle with all others that follow, all in the same bowl. ;) So, it's obviously essential to follow the recipe steps exactly as they are written so that the ingredients are mashed together in the correct order. Believe me, the extra effort, (which isn't really even that much effort, to be honest), is worth it!

The flavors are incredibly vibrant, & it's easy to see why this sensational salad is a favorite dish amongst the Thai people as well as others living around the world. Those who taste som tam for the first time often go back for seconds & thirds. Better watch out: One bite & you'll be hooked! :)

No worries about getting addicted to the stuff; It's also tremendously healthy for you  -- lowfat, low-calorie, high-fiber, & very nutritious! :)

This dish is truly delicious & full of flavor. It embodies the five main tastes of Thai cuisine: salty (the salt & fish sauce), umami (the dried shrimp & again, the fish sauce!), sour (lime juice, tamarind, & tomatoes), sweet (palm sugar) & hot (Thai chilies). Green papaya has a very mild, almost bland, flavor to it, so it's perfect for picking up the other flavors in this dish.

It's a great dish to serve to round out a meal, and goes well with seafood, chicken, beef, or tofu. Try serving it the traditional Thai way -- on a bed of cabbage (or just a single, bowl-shaped cabbage leaf), accompanied by kai yang (barbecued chicken marinated in Thai seasonings) & either rice noodles or a side of sticky rice steamed in a banana leaf. Som tam also goes well with Thai-style marinated beef, coconut chicken curry, or grilled fish.

Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)

1 Tbsp. whole garlic, peeled (about 2 large cloves)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dried baby shrimp (or shrimp paste)*
1/2 Tbsp. red Thai (Bird's Eye) chilies, stemmed, sliced lengthwise, then seeded & sliced crosswise into small pieces (about 2 medium-sized red chilies)
1/2 Tbsp. green Thai (Bird's Eye) chilies, stemmed, sliced lengthwise, then seeded & sliced crosswise into small pieces (about 2 medium-sized green chilies)*
1 Tbsp. (coconut) palm sugar*
1 Tbsp. tamarind paste*
6 c. fresh & very firm green (unripened) papaya, skin peeled & then peeled into long, thin, ribbon-like strips (using a special Thai peeler with a zig-zag blade) (about 1 medium-sized whole papaya, 2 - 2 1/2 lbs.)*
1/2 c. carrots, peeled & shredded
1/3 c. unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts
2-3 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice (juice of about 1 large lime)
1 Tbsp. fish sauce (or 1 1/2 Tbsp. for a stronger flavor)*
1/2 c. Chinese long beans, chopped crosswise into 1" pieces (optional)*
1 1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, halved (or 2 medium-sized vine-ripened tomatoes, drained)
1/4 c. scallions, sliced crosswise into 1/4" rounds
1/2 c. fresh cilantro, roughly chopped & tightly packed
1/2 c. Thai basil, roughly chopped (optional)*

Directions: In an extra large clay or ceramic mortar, add the garlic, salt, dried shrimp, & chilies, & pound vigorously with the pestle until pulverized. Next, add the palm sugar & tamarind paste, & pound a few times more until the mixture forms a thick paste. Add a few cups of papaya & the carrots to the mortar (i.e., as much as you can fit without crowding the bowl, while still leaving room for additional ingredients!) & gently bruise the papaya just a little bit with the pestle, but not so hard that it disintegrates or becomes soggy; the papaya should still be crunchy. Toss the papaya in the mortar with a spoon in one hand as you pound the ingredients with the other to ensure that the papaya is thoroughly coated with the other ingredients & thus, picks up all of their flavors. Next, gently crush the peanuts, pounding only long enough to break them up a bit; or add them in whole at the end (as a garnish) if you prefer. Pour the lime juice & fish sauce (called nam pla in Thai) all over the papaya, & toss again so that everything's well mixed. Follow with the green beans, pound a bit, & then stir in the cherry tomatoes & the remainder of the papaya, continuing to gently pound a few times to infuse the flavors into the papaya. Add scallions, cilantro, & basil, & toss. Mix well. Taste the salad & adjust ingredients accordingly to the desired ratio of hot, sour, sweet, salty, & umami flavors. Ideally, the overriding notes of the salad should be hot & sour flavors with just a hint of sweetness.Transfer to plates & serve immediately. Enjoy with Thai barbecued chicken & sticky rice.

Yield: 8-10 servings.

Chef's Notes: Special kitchen tools: It's recommended that you use a ceramic or clay mortar & pestle instead of a stone one, which is too heavy & will typically lead to an over-pounded & soggy salad. :)

If you don't have a traditional, and very large (!), Thai mortar & pestle, you'll probably need to make the salad in 2 or 3 batches, depending on the size of your mortar.

Obtaining the special Thai peeler with a zig-zag blade is really no big deal. Like most of the above ingredients, you can find this tool at your local Asian market, or just buy it online. It's really inexpensive -- a minor but very practical investment -- that's only a few bucks at most, but it'll certainly come in handy in future. And, even when you're not using it to make green papaya salad, it can be repurposed for many other uses as well: Use it to make zucchini "spaghetti," or peel off the skin of any type of fruit or vegetable. I've also used mine to shred cheese & potatoes. You could probably also use it to shave chocolate, i.e., for hot cocoa or as a topping for tiramisù or some other dessert, etc. There are so many potential uses....

Since unripened, green papaya tends to be very firm & thus hard to slice open, I strongly recommend peeling off the skin first & then peeling it into long strips. It's a lot easier to shred a papaya this way, (i.e., keeping it whole as you shred it), versus cutting it in half first & then shredding it. First, green papaya's hard as rock, which can make slicing it very difficult, not to mention a bit dangerous. ;) And second, halving the papaya first generally makes it much more challenging to grip the papaya as you peel/shred it. That is, unless you place the papaya seed-side down onto a cutting board, peeling with one hand while applying pressure to the opposite side with the other, making sure to keep the stabilizing hand as far way as possible from the peeler. However, this method can still be dangerous, so unless you are an expert, extra-careful shredder, I'd recommend peeling the papaya while it's still whole. Regardless, please be careful & pay full attention as you are peeling. Please, for the love of your digits, do NOT try any mid-air peeling or slicing maneuvers. ;) This is VERY dangerous.

As you peel, you may have to reposition your hands a few times to get the maximum number of shreds from the papaya. When you start getting closer to its hollow core, you'll want to be extra careful as you peel it. The papaya only needs to be seeded if you'll be using up the whole thing for the recipe. It's best not to shred the whole thing if you're not going to use it all that day, as the papaya will generally tend to keep better for the next few days' use if you keep its seeds intact.

Advance kitchen prep: If you wish to make this dish in advance, combine all of the ingredients except for the peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce, & tomatoes. This way, it'll keep longer in the fridge, i.e., for several hours (or overnight). Then, just add these reserved ingredients just before serving & toss well.

A few words about the ingredients: If you can't find the tamarind paste (i.e., concentrated tamarind) & can only get the kind that comes in a brick (with the seeds), then you'll need to process it before adding it to the mortar. To do this, boil a kettle of water, place a chunk of the tamarind pulp (about 1-2 Tbsp.) into a small bowl, pour in about a 1/3 - 1/2 cup water, & let it dissolve for several minutes. Then break the tamarind apart with a fork (or wait until the water cools a bit, put on a pair of rubber/latex gloves, & use your hands). Strain through a sieve to extract the homemade, concentrated paste.

I normally don't put sugar into my recipes, as most of the readers of this blog are already aware, but I wanted to keep this recipe authentic, which is why I used palm sugar instead of honey. Plus, there's only a little bit of palm sugar in this recipe. Regardless, palm sugar's considered to be one of the healthier forms of sweeteners. Made from the sap of a coconut palm tree, it naturally has a very low glycemic index (a GI of 35), lower than that of cane sugar, agave, and even honey. Plus, it's especially high in potassium, magnesium and zinc, as well as vitamins B2, B3, and B6.

Key (see above for references): * = You can get these products at your local Asian market or order them online.

Variations: Other versions of this salad may sometimes also include (unripened) green mango, pineapple, white guava, mung bean sprouts, shredded cucumbers, pickled or salted crab, &/or shredded daikon radish.

This dish can easily be converted into a vegetarian or vegan dish; omit the shrimp & fish sauce, & just use some other umami substitute. Soy sauce makes an OK substitute for fish sauce, but you can also make your own vegetarian, imitation "fish sauce" by combining 1/4 c. Chinese dark soy sauce, 1 tsp. sherry wine, 1 tsp. peeled & crushed garlic (about 1/2 of a large clove), and about 1 Tbsp. miso (strained). Please note, this is just an approximation of a recipe that I just whipped up in my head on the fly, & not a tested recipe, so you'll probably want to taste the recipe first as is & then just adjust the amounts to suit your personal taste preferences.

Also, for the original recipe template, I erred on the side of caution when it came to listing amounts for the more pungent ingredients. So, if you follow the recipe as is, you will be OK. Of course, it's probably better to keep the salt, garlic, & fish sauce to a minimum, & then just tweak it a bit to balance out the flavors. That way, you can adjust them to suit your individual preferences. Easier to add than to subtract. ;)


Unknown said...

Is there a history behind this yummy dish (thai green papaya salad)?

Cyberpenguin said...

Yes, there is. The following articles contain information about som tam's origins & history, "Everything You Need to know About Som Tam -- Including Where to Find It" and "Thai Food and Thai Coooking: History of Som Tam, Pappaya Salad." Hope that helps!

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