‘Salad’. It’s a wimpy word for such a vivacious dish. But that is what this Thai street- food staple usually becomes in translation – green papaya salad. Its native name is far more appropriate to a dish that assaults the lips and tongue with its combo of sweet-sour zing and fiery heat: ‘som’ and ‘tam’ could be the percussive thwacks of a comic-book hero, punching you in the mouth.
The true translation of Som Tam isn’t a million miles away: tam means ‘to pound’ (while som is ‘sour’). Traditionally it is made using a pestle and mortar, the green (unripe) papaya – which is mildly savoury and slightly crunchy – grated or hand-sliced into matchsticks* before being gently crushed with garlic, bird’s-eye chillies, toasted peanuts, dried shrimps, cherry tomatoes and green beans. It’s then dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind water and palm sugar – preferably enough to leave a slurpable puddle at the bottom of the dish to be soaked up by the sticky rice that’s usually served in a bowl alongside it.
Wouldn’t we all love to be scoffing this at a beach café right now? It’s a gap year in a bowl. And if you’re inspired to shine some south-east Asian sun over your own midwinter table, you don’t need to scour the exotic produce aisles for a green papaya. Som Tam dressing is so pungent that it works with any crunchy salad or edible raw root: kohlrabi, cabbage, peeled and deseeded cucumber, courgette, carrot, celariac, beetroot – even that unloved swede that’s loitering in your veg box. As a sinus- busting (and soul-enriching) winter cold remedy, it beats anything you could get out of a lemon-flavoured sachet.
TUCK IN: Som Tam is one of the signature dishes at Sukhothai, which has four branches in Leeds and Harrogate (sukhothai.co.uk).
￼￼￼* It’s what your spiralizer has been waiting for
Inspired to make your own? Head to our Food from afar Pinterest board for recipe ideas: