There is no doubt that Som Tam, the green papaya salad, is the most famous, popular and loved salad in Thailand, both among locals and tourists. Som Tam offers the 4 flavors that are most typical for the Thai kitchen: sour (lime), hot (chili), salty (fish sauce) and sweet (palm sugar).
The salad ingredients are green papaya strips, cherry tomatoes, a particular kind of green bean, lemon juice, palm sugar, chili and fish sauce (Nam Pla). All these ingredients are placed in a unique bowl, and pounded with a wooden pestle. Therefore, the salad is also known as Papaya Pok Pok – hinting to the knocking sound which is heard during its preparation.
The Som Tam is originally from the north-eastern provinces of Thailand (Isan), where locals usually add to the dish fermented fish with a repulsive smell, or small black crabs. However, in Bangkok and central Thailand, the papaya salad has been refined, and the fish were removed from the recipe. Instead, it is accustomed to add peanuts and additional sweetness. Usually, the salad is prepared with small, dry shrimps.
It’s the same famous salad which is well-known to tourists, and highly popular among them – so make sure to order Som Tam Thai, when you are in restaurants/food stands and want to try it.
The level of pungency (hotness) of the salad depends on the number of hot peppers that are added and pounded in the bowl. If you are not used to eating spicy food, make sure to ask for one chili or even none.
The Som Tam goes well with roasted chicken (Kai Yang) and is served with sticky rice (Khao Nio). You can find the dish in street/market stands and Thai restaurants, where they serve another, delicious variation of the dish made of mango. Simply show this to the waitress at the restaurant: Som Tam Thai ส้มตำไทย (regular papaya salad), Tam Mamuang ตำมะม่วง (mango salad).
Feel free to follow this link, where you will find a papaya salad recipe, which also suits vegetarians as it has no fish sauce/schrimps.
I’ve also attached a short clip of the Som Tam preparation process. It was taken in one of the many food stands at the Impact Arena Exhibition.