As craters are to the moon, so the delightful dish Som Tam is ubiquitous to northern Thai cuisine. Just about every street vendor, open air market and restaurant serves Som Tam and if they don’t, they can direct you to the nearest place that does, which is generally less than five minutes walk away, regardless of where in northern Thailand you are! Otherwise known to foreigners as ‘Papaya pok pok’ owing to the sound its preparation with a pestle and mortar makes, Som Tam is a delicious crunchy salad made from green beans, tomato, dried shrimp, garlic, fresh lime juice, Thai bird chilies, carrots, roasted peanuts and green (unripe) and julienne-style papaya fruit (paw paw). Owing to its incredibly popularity amongst the locals and foreigners alike, there are fresh food vendors dealing in Som Tam to be found in every single market-place, be it open-air or indoors; during the day or nighttime.
Half the fun of enjoying Som Tam is watching its preparation! It’s appropriate nickname ‘Papaya Pok Pok’ is derived from the sound the cook makes while thumping away with his / her pestle and mortar at the whole garlic cloves, chilies, palm sugar, tamarind juice and various other spices that are used to great the flavor and aromatic base of the dish. The use of fermented fish sauce to taste is a deeply-entrenched habit in Thai-style cooking and Som Tam doesn’t escape this addition, so foreigners might have to wrap their taste buds around its pungent aroma. Yet, behind the stigma of a sauce created from fermenting fish, there is an incredible palate of fresh, zingy and spicy flavors and crunchy textures to be greatly relished. Many Thais love their Som Tam with “bpuu” (phonetic pronunciation), or fresh raw river crabs. Many vendors prepare Som Tam this way, so if you don’t make any specifications you might find yourself getting raw crab in your plate!
So, if you are planning a trip to Thailand, make sure you try this incredible testament to the colour and complexity of Thai cuisine and if you are wary of eating raw river crab, just say “Mai sai Bpuu!”… don’t put crab!