Skip to main content


Latest Posts

Monday, February 18 2008

Being married to a Thai for the last few years has meant learning a fair amount about Thai food. This isn't such a great accomplishment because it's usually the main topic of our conversations.

My wife once told me that a Thai would be most happy if she could eat seven times a day and I think she is pretty close to that mark. Any time she's not actually eating she can be counted on to be thinking of what or where to eat next.

There's obviously some kind of health secret here. If she's carrying two pounds extra, I have no idea where she's hiding it. If I ate like she did, it would take a crane to get me out of bed in the mornings. The answer must be that what she's eating must be healthy as well as delicious. Her number one favorite meal, snack, between meal pick-me-up, comfort food and health potion is ... somtam.

I confess that I had been thinking of somtam as a low class street vender food until I read a newspaper review of a local restaurant in Chiang Mai (Huen Phen) that quoted world class chef and author, Anthony Bourdain as saying that "their papaya salad is in fact the best salad he has ever eaten." Interesting.

Since then I've eaten it there, ordered it in other restaurants and stood beside street vendors in back alleys as they made some for me. It's always very good and I'm reminded of the great line that David Mamet wrote in Wag the Dog,"There are two things I know to be true. There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war in Albania." My wife tells me that all somtam is good but there are some she likes more than others.

Regardless of where you get your somtam in Thailand, what I like is that it is always prepared fresh and usually in the front section of the restaurant (or behind the small glass booth perched on the street cart.)

The essentials are basic: a sharp knife, a spoon and a morter and pestle. The preparation is a blur of culinary poetry.

Throw a handful of chilies into the morter and give a good pound or two with the pestle to release the heat. In quick succession add some coarsely chopped tomato, a dash of sugar, a good splash of fish sauce (available now in most oriental markets,) a small spoon of lemon juice, a clove or two of garlic and (usually) some MSG.

The sauce is finished with the addition of a few tiny, whole crabs (poo) and some salted, fermented fish (balak.)

Pound and stir to bruise and mix the sauce then quickly julienne a firm green papaya and add the spaghetti sized pieces to the brew.

Pound and stir one last time to wilt the green fruit in the sauce. Spoon the salad to a plate or bowl and it will invariably look naturally elegant.

Now for the vocabulary to make sure it's done to your taste. Order Somtam Lao if you want the pungent, sour taste of the balak (fermented fish.) Somtam Thai omits the balak and adds peanuts, which I prefer.

"Mai Sai Poo" means hold the crab. "Mai Pom Chulot" is "no MSG." The somtam beginner should say, " mai phet" meaning "not spicy." I like to order "phet mai mak" or "not too spicy." Only a serious masochist should say "phet gadai" and should not then whine about the fiery pain that the true somtam addict craves.

Hot or not, somtam blends soft with crisp and has an intense but surprisingly balanced flavor that is sweet, salty, sour and bitter in every bite.

Robert Orson writes for: Easy Chiang Mai

Posted by: Send a Meal AT 10:09 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

Post comment
Email Address

(max 750 characters)
* Required Fields
Note: All comments are subject to approval. Your comment will not appear until it has been approved.