While pad thai, green curry and increasingly perhaps massuman curry are the international ambassadors for Thai food, there is little doubt that in Thailand the humble papaya salad is the staple that feeds the nation. Known in Thai as somtum (sometimes spelt “som tam”), hailing from the country’s northeastern Isaan region and with a heritage that traces back to neighbouring Laos, papaya salad comes in numerous varieties that see it laced with everything from fish that has been left to rot for several months, to pickled cockles or crab, to salted eggs and more. At its base, though, is a common denominator of shredded green, unripe papaya, pounded in a pestle and mortar with a dressing of fish sauce, lime, garlic and plenty of burning hot chillies – one, two, five or perhaps twenty, depending on your spice tolerance. In some restaurants you may get versions where the papaya is replaced with other fruit or veg like carrots or apples.
Once you take into account personal preference and the fact that there is a somtum vendor on just about every corner, naming Bangkok’s best papaya salad becomes a very subjective, and some might say nigh on impossible, task. All the same, here are a few of the hottest spots to chow down on a plate of somtum; all of them also sell a range of other northeastern dishes to make up a deliciously fiery spread.
Bringing somtum in from its street food roots, Somtum Der puts on an impressive spread of Isaan dishes in a comfortable, air-conditioned restaurant in the middle of the hubbub of Silom Road. The bright space lets in lots of natural sunlight and boasts pale wooden panelling, but the focus is on the food, true to the authenticity of the fiery plates of shredded papaya to be founded on Thailand’s pavements. The usual suspects are all here, along with some twists like somtum kor moo yang, a papaya salad spruced up with grilled pork neck.
Somtum hoy dong, papaya salad with pickled cockles, one of our favourites but more difficult than most to find on the street, is also on the menu, while additional inventive variations include somtum hoy kraeng, made with blood cockles, and a somtum pa neua, a ‘jungle salad’ loaded with everything but the kitchen sink, including grilled beef.
Further setting Somtum Der aside from your everyday street stall are the very reasonably priced roselle and lemongrass vodka martinis (120 baht). Prices are higher than on the street, but not outrageous – papaya salads start around the 50 baht mark, while meat dishes run between 80 and 100 baht.
Somtum Der is located on Soi Sala Daeng, just off of Silom Road; the closest Skytrain station is Sala Daeng, and the nearest MRT is Silom. Open daily 11am-10.30pm; www.somtumder.com.
A little out of the way for most visitors to Bangkok, but worth a mention all the same for some of the best somtum we’ve tasted in Bangkok. This very casual affair of a street stall sets up around dusk every day except Monday, on Soi 19 of Udomsuk Road, which is Sukhumvit Soi 103. It’s easy to get to thanks to the Skytrain; from the station of the same name it’s either a 10-baht motorbike taxi ride or about a 20-minute walk down Udomsuk Road. The restaurant is on the main road, just short of the corner of Soi 19; you won’t be able to miss the series of joined up carts staffed by an army-sized family of cooks, waiters and even little kids running around creating havoc and getting the bill for customers.
The usual spread of dishes is on offer here, including a particularly expertly done somtum hoy dong, with the perfect degree of sourness, a liberal dose of pounded chilli and a generous helping of pickled cockles. Those with a less adventurous palate will still find it work the trek for the somtum thai, made with dried shrimps, peanuts and palm sugar to produce a salad that’s sweeter than most and therefore more suited to the Bangkokian palate than the northeastern country bumpkins among us. The laab pla duk, a warm salad of minced catfish, onions, mint and roasted rice powder, is also worth a special mention, and it’s worth ordering in one or other of the whole grilled catfish, or pla duk yang, or whole grilled snakehead fish, pla pao, which is stuffed with lemongrass and other herbs, smothered in salt on the outside and then grilled until the skin is crispy but the interior still juicy and tender.
Dishes at this nameless street stall run around the same prices as most spots in Bangkok; expect a decent spread of three or four dishes to share between two people, plus sticky rice and water (there’s also beer available) to cost around the 300 baht mark. Limited English is spoken here, but between pointing and miming you should manage an enjoyable feast.
This sprawling street stall on Silom Soi 9 boasts countless varieties of papaya salad, fragrant meaty soups loaded with galangal, dill and lemongrass, plus freshly grilled chicken, catfish and more – all served up by an army of cooks to keep pace with the crowds that keep them busy every night and make it clear that the food here is damn good.
Expect the usual array of papaya salads including somtum thai, somtum puu pla rah, the northeastern favourite loaded with fermented gourami fish and soft-shell crab; and somtum kai khem, with the addition of salted, hard-boiled eggs. But don’t miss other popular dishes like namtok and laab, fresh and fragrant chicken, pork or beef salads, the former made with grilled meat slices and the latter with minced meat (as the stall’s name implies, it’s worth trying their duck laab bped). Pair it with some sticky rice or kanom jeen rice noodles, and wash it all down with a beer or two.
Laab Bped Yasothon is located on Silom Soi 9; the closest Skytrain station is at Chong Nonsi. Open 3-10pm, Tuesday to Sunday; expect to pay 200-300 baht for a spread of several dishes for two or more people.
Choosing the best som tum restaurants caused a bit of a debate at Expique so here are a few more for you to consider:
Join the debate. Where is your favourite place to eat papaya salad in Bangkok? Let us know in the comments!