Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tam, tum, tom.

Som tam. © Ryan Schierling
There are at least 43 different Thai recipes for green papaya salad. There are a couple different spelling variations (som tam, som tum, som tom). There are at least five very questionable heat indices ranging from extremely mild to solar flare/coronal mass ejection, depending on what restaurant you're at or where you get your bird chiles. 

We used to live a half block from a wonderful, family-owned Thai restaurant. While I am still a little hum-dingered that we didn't ask them for their Zion Chicken recipe before we moved to Texas, I will always give credit to them for introducing me to one of my all-time favorite salads, Thai or otherwise – green papaya salad. It was a wonderfully fresh blast of color and texture, exciting flavors, and I would order it every time we got take-out.

The only thing was, they didn't always have it on the menu – green papaya absenteeism, green papaya vacancy, green papaya truancy, straight-up green papaya hooky. When green papaya was out of season or otherwise unavailable, their stand-in julienne was carrot with more carrot and – while still delicious – that's just not my som tam, sir. 

Eventually, I started doing my own shopping for green papaya, found a baseline recipe and we were never again disappointed by green papaya having stepped out on us. 

When I say baseline recipe, I mean it. There are a ton of versions out there, some including ginger, tamarind, agave, soy sauce, peanuts, dried shrimp, bean sprouts... the list is endless. I keep it simple because I am a rank amateur when it comes to Thai cookery, and because I like to think that's how this dish started out. But I do know that having fish sauce on hand is akin to keeping Balsamic vinegar in your pantry, and palm sugar is as much a staple as brown sugar or honey.

Forgive me for vague Grandmother-like approximations, but I tend to make this by sight and color, texture and taste. What I dig may be different than your preferences, and there are certainly fancier, more detailed recipes out there. And like grammy always tells you with a secretive smile when you ask for that one favorite, cherished family recipe, "Hmm, I never really wrote that down... I just make it." 

Som Tam

1 good-sized green papaya, found at your local Asian market, peeled and julienned. Stay away from the seeds, use only the meat of the fruit. You can also shred green papaya on a cheese grater with large holes.
1 carrot, peeled and julienned. Cheese grater method applies here as well, if you're partial.
1 dozen or so fresh green beans, topped and cut into mouth-manageable pieces
Tomatoes... your pick - either little ones halved or the bigger ones quartered 

For the dressing:
1 clove garlic, minced fine
Juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoons palm sugar
1 Thai bird chile, sliced into thin rounds 
Mix everything well and let flavors combine

Adjust the dressing to taste. Some like more salty, some like more sweet. I just start with the above and add until balance is achieved, but be warned – bird chiles are beautifully hot, and you really can't take that away once they're in there. If you make more dressing than you need, you can always toss it with thinly-sliced grilled beef, add some onions and a chiffonade of Thai basil and mint for a very easy Thai beef salad. Yum nua is another one of my favorites, one that our next-door neighbor convinced me to figure out because he was tired of paying $15.99 a pound for it at the deli/salad counter at Metropolitan Market. It is simple, and satisfying.

Yum nua. © Ryan Schierling
Now, I know this is all traditionally done with mortar and pestle. Things get pounded to bruise them up and juice them out, but I like to prep the papaya, carrots, green beans and tomatoes and toss them into a bowl. Then I make the dressing to taste and dump it over everything, giving it a good rough stir. Then I usually let it sit and room temperature for an hour, scolding it every 10 minutes or so. Then I eat it. Then I eat it ALL. 

Som tam is a refreshing summer salad, it's got salty/sweet/sour/spicy mix which is a far different flavor profile than most salads, and it's easy. Really easy. 

You've just got to find that damned elusive green papaya...

1 comment:

  1. yes indeed...where to find a green papaya in Paris....? Will report back soon! Thank you for the beautiful recipe, much appreciated as it has been nearly 26.6C here!(80deg.F)


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