The Ultimate Guide to Som Tum (Papaya Salad)

It's not just Papaya Salad!

By Simon Philipp
Published: September 15, 2022

Som Tum (ส้มตำ) is a form of spicy Thai salad that is associated as coming from the Isaan province in North-East Thailand. However, it originally came from Laos, which shares a boarder with Isaan. These days you will find it all over Thailand and it is a comfort dish for many Thais. It is almost impossible to walk down a street in Thailand without seeing a som tum (or Isaan food) vendor.

What is Som Tum?

Som Tum is often translated into English as “Papaya Salad” as the original dish has green papaya as the base ingredient.

The most globally recognized version som tum is “Som Tum Thai” as it is possibly the most palatable and does not contain any of the more pungent of ingredients that some versions do. The core ingredients users are chillies, fresh garlic, dried shrimp, fish sauce, palm sugar to, peanuts, juicy limes, cherry tomatoes, green long beans, and green papaya.

However, there are so many variations of “Som Tum”, where instead of papaya they use an other core ingredient as a base for the salad. The reality is there are so many variations that there is a version to excite everyone. However, if you neglect to include at least 1 chilli we may question whether it really is som tum!

Som Tum is usually prepared by combining the ingredients in a clay mortar with wodden pestle. First you mix chillies and garlic to lightly crush them and then you mix with the other ingredients to make the sauce. Then add the green papaya and mix it all together!

In Isaan (and Laos), the most popular versions of som tum usually contain a fermented fish paste (pla ra) which adds a rather salty pungent taste. Likewise, in Isaan it is very common to add pickled crabs (som tum pu pla ra).

Som tum is usually eaten with sticky rice and other Isaan dishes. Perhaps for the ultimate comfort meal order som tum with grilled chicken!

Different Types of Som Tum

Som Tum Thai (ส้มตำไทย) – with papaya

This classic version made from grated papaya, is the one you will find in most restaurants – especially ones overseas or catering to a Western audience. Often grated carrot will be added in addition to the papaya. You can make it as spicy as you want.

Som Tum Mamuang (ส้มตำมะม่วง) – with greeb mango

Instead of papaya this is made with slightly sour and hard green mango.

Som Tum Polamai (ส้มตำผลไม้) – with mixed fruit

You can use a variety of fresh fruits including apples, grapes, guava, pineapple. In this version the fruit is usually chopped into small chunks rather than grated.

Tum Teng (ส้มตำแตง) – with cucumber

Using cucumber makes this a version you can easily make anywhere in the world. You can cut the cucumber think or cut it into batons.

Som Tum Farang (ส้มตำฝรั่ง) – with guava

Use Guava instead of papaya. You can grate the papaya or cut it into small chucks.

Som Tum Mama – with instant mama noodles

For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with mama noodles and cucumber.

Som Tum Woon Sen – with glass noodles

For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with glass noodles, carrots and papaya.

Som Tum Kanom Jeen – with fermented noodles

For this version we used a normal som tum sauce but mixed with kanom jeen and cucumber. Best extra spicy!

Som Tum Pu Pla Ra – with crab and fermented fish sauce

If you are from Isaan this is possible the most authentic version of som tum that you can get.

Tum Suo – with vermicelli noodles

This is a noodle based version

Som Tum Khao Pod – with sweetcord

This is a simple version that can be made anywhere in the world as sweetcorn is readily available in most places.

Som Tum Pa (Jungle)

This translates to “jungle” pounded and it includes a random mixture of all sorts of pungent ingredients including crab, khanom jeen noodles, water mimosa (vegetable)…

What about Som Tum Tard

A few years ago it became fashionable to serve som tum on a big round plate with the som tum in the middle and extra items around the edge. Such extras would be: Moo yor (Vietnamese port sausage), naem (fermented pork sausage), Khai Khem (salted egg), century egg, khep moo (fred pork skin)…. What a yummy meal!


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