|Sum Tam (Green Papaya Salad)|
Jun 9th, 2006
Back in college I spent a semester studying abroad in Thailand. I lived with a host family in a city in the northern part of the country called Chiang Mai, and spent a month on my own doing an independent study in Bangkok. I was in Thailand for about four months, which works out to approximately 120 days, so I'm guessing I ate som tam at least 120 times while I was there. Oh how I loved the stuff. Som tam (or som tum) is a green papaya salad that is sold by street vendors all over Thailand (or at least in Chiang Mai and Bangkok). The vendor will take your order, which usually involves specifying how many chilies you want and whether you want the vegetarian or regular version, then he will shred the green papaya, mash the ingredients together in a big mortar and pestle, and deliver it to you in a plastic bag with some cabbage leaves and a warm ball of sticky rice. Besides the green papaya, the other ingredients tossed into the mortar are fresh lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, chilies, uncooked green beans, a few chopped tomatoes, and some crushed peanuts. Meat eaters usually get some dried shrimp or some tiny little crabs mixed in. Or both. I would always order it vegetarian, because I was one, but also because I had no desire at all to deal with the dried shrimp or crabs. There are definite advantages to travelling abroad as a vegetarian - strange eating adventures usually involve some kind of meat. And as far as I could tell, Thai vegetarians consumed vast quantities of fish sauce with no compunction, so I followed suit.
Sometimes the salad and the rice were packed separately, but if not the top layer of rice would be a bit wet and crumbly from the salad piled on top. I would pinch off a walnut sized ball of rice with my fingers and then use the rice to scoop up some tangy, salty, addictive salad and go to town. I managed to put on ten pounds during those four months during which I was running every morning and eating a vegetarian diet heavy on fruit and vegetables. I have a feeling it may have had something to do with my out of control consumption of sticky rice.
When I got home from Thailand I mourned the loss of my daily sum tam habit. Bear in mind that this was in the early '90s and Thai restaurants were just beginning their march to ubiquity. If you can believe it, when I got to Thailand in the summer of '91 I had never tasted even a bite of Thai food. So while there were Thai restaurants around when I got back, I had to seek them out, and I could only find one that served green papaya salad. Green papayas aren't an easy thing to track down, but they've got 'em at Uwajimaya and I picked one up recently during my 'trip that spawned a thousand blog entries'. You can substitute shredded cucumber or carrot for the papaya, which are both tasty in their own right, although really not at all the same. A green papaya is just an unripe papaya, although I believe the variety of papaya used in Thailand is different than the Mexican papayas we get here in the States. But if you find a very green one at your grocery store, give it a shot. If the papaya is truly unripe, the seeds inside will be white and papery instead of black and smooth as they are when ripe. In fact I found them fairly creepy looking, like an unsettling cross between rice krispies and spider eggs.
There are a zillion recipes for sum tam on the web. I followed this one, although I added a bit more lime juice and fish sauce and omitted the dried shrimp. And I'm not sure I'd start out with the eight chilies mentioned - you might want to work up to that. I remember being so proud that in the time I was in Thailand I worked my way up from an obvious newbie one-chile order, to a hey I speak the language a little bit and I got to school here so don't treat me like a farang four chile level.
In a nod to my waistline, and because I forgot to pick some up, I have chosen to eat my sum tam without sticky rice this week. I made some Thai jasmine rice instead, and I've found that if I cook it with a bit less water than usual, It has a stickier drier consistency that holds up to the salad well. I doubt the jasmine rice is much better for me, but I don't inhale it at quite the volume levels I do with sticky rice. And while I don't think I got the exact right balance of spicy, salty, and sweet this time, the first taste immediately put me back in Thailand, ordering my som tam, fidgeting in line until it was ready, and then running home as fast as I could to scarf it all down.