With nine days to go until I head off to Asia, I guess you can say I’ve got som tum on my mind. The sweet, sour and spicy papaya salad is one of my all time favorites. While decent renditions are available stateside, none quite compare to the som tum served across Thailand, often made fresh on the spot.
When in Thailand five years ago I made it my mission to consume som tum daily, often eating it not once but twice for both lunch and dinner. Maybe I wasn’t the most adventurous but I was certainly happy with my all som tum all the time decision. Over the course of the week I enjoyed many delicious servings of the snack though the most memorable, however, was the som tom on Koh Samui’s Chaweng beach. Muddled up before my eyes by someone’s Thai grandma, the actual preparation of the salad was nothing out of the ordinary. The elderly woman tossed some green papaya into a mortar to be crushed by a pestle along with long bean, peanut, tomato and the rest of the customary sour and sweet ingredients. She reached over to grab a Thai chili- the small red pepper famed for giving Thai food it’s heat- and that’s exactly when I decided to step in. The pepper looked so small, wimpy almost, one for certain, would not be enough. After living in Korea for half a year, I could easily justify a bump in heat and had grown to enjoy a level of heat deemed inedible by most.
Two peppers, I told her. She looked at me like I had five heads, I assured her it would be all good. The som tum was delicious, fresh and flavorful like I knew it would be. But the grandma on the beach was right to look at me like I had five heads, I was being crazy, absolutely out of my mind. What Thai chilis lack in size, they make up for in flavor. I ate the entire salad sweating through each and every lingering bite and the all encompassing heat that emanated from the innocuous plate created an intense symphony of flavor I will not soon forget.
Five years later, I look forward to returning to Thailand, Koh Samui and to my som tum. This time however, I plan on following some of my own advice. Whenever people traveling to Thailand ask me for recommendations, there are many tidbits I chose to share. Along with where to stay and where to go, I always tell them to get the som tom on the beach. And always one pepper, not two.