From Soil to City

Making Som Tam with Local Produce


The first time I tried som tam was on my fifth day in Thailand. I was confused by this spicy, sour, salty dish– was I eating some kind of rice noodle? Vegetable? What were these dry shrimp? How was this sauce so deliciously potent? I did know one thing– I had to find more.

Som tam, or green papaya salad, is a dish pervasive on Thai restaurants around the world. The dish was likely born in Laos, then came over to northeastern Thailand, a region known as Isaan. The version that typically makes it to American Thai restaurants more closely resembles som tam found in central Thailand- sweeter and less fishy.

I knew I was settled into my new home in Nan, Thailand once I had found my som tam lady, her stall set up next to my friend’s office supply shop. She sold her made-to-order salad in addition to grilled eggs on skewers, little plastic bags of crispy pork rinds, and steaming hot sticky rice. I rode my yellow bicycle over whenever I needed my fix of this refreshing salad. She stood behind her large mortar and pestle, mixing the fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, garlic, and chiles with such fluidity– som tam was second nature to her. She offered tastes of the sauce as she made it, making sure that the flavors were balanced to my liking.

After watching my som tam lady and others make countless batches of papaya salad, I have dabbled in testing out recipes of my own. Som tam doesn’t need to be made of green papaya. Tam refers to the act of using a mortar and pestle and som means sour. I’ve tried to work with our not-so-tropical climate and vegetables- there are infinite possibilities. Really, the world is your oyster! Once you figure out the balance of flavors in the sauce, you can make it like a dressing for any number of  your Local Roots CSA vegetables or even fruits. Cabbage and carrots are a natural substitute, but go crazy and try it with your locally grown cucumber, green beans, even apples!

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Som Tam, Local Roots Style / ส้มตำ
2-3 Tbs palm sugar or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon water
1 lime, halved through the stem
2 cloves garlic
1-4 fresh Thai chiles
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
~3 cups shredded cabbage and carrots
1/4 cup coarsely chopped unsalted peanuts, roasted

1. Combine the garlic, chiles, and 1 tablespoon of the sugar in a large mortar and pound just until you have a chunky sludge with medium pieces of chile and small but visible pieces of garlic, about 10 seconds.

2. Add 3 small lime wedges and pound very lightly, just to release the juice.

3. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, and cabbage/carrot. Then use the pestle to barely bruise the veggies, essentially tossing the veggies and dressing. Do not smash the cabbage/carrot. It should remain crisp.  Add the peanuts and mix briefly with the spoon.

by Hannah Joseph, Local Roots NYC