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Try a Papaya - Spicy "Sohm Taam' Salad

PAPAYA, THAT EXOTIC fruit you will find in a mixed fruit plate is a big crop in Thailand and is a versatile, nutritious food. While the average person may believe that all papayas are alike, local farmers firmly believe that the Thai version of Malagor, especially 'Malagor Kaek Dum' is the best. Among the original local Thai papaya varieties are: Khaek Nuan, Cocoa, Sai Naam Pheung, Paak Shong, Jumpada while Solo and Sun Rise are recent introductions from Hawaii. In Thailand, papayas are available year-round. Papayas thrive in a hot climate, such as Thailand, which increases the fruit's sweetness. Many varieties of papaya are grown in Thailand.

Nutritionally, papaya can't be beat. A half papaya contains only 80 calories and provides nearly twice an adults' required daily allowance of vitamin C. Papaya increases in vitamin C as it ripens. It also contains vitamin A, and potassium and is low in sodium. Papayas are also rich in carotenes, which protective against cancer. Papaya has been used in Thailand, Southern Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands as a folk medicine for curing dysentery, dyspepsia, and wounds, and as heart tonic.

One of the unique ways the Thai cool off in the hot season is to eat a special type of papaya salad called 'sohm taam' . With green papaya slices, string beans, chilies and a touch of dried shrimp or peanuts as its main ingredients, this type of salad is served in most outdoor restaurants and in the evening at eating stalls set up in various places around Chiangmai city, such as opposite Sompet Market, and in the Chang Puak Gate, Chiangmai Gate and Night Bazaar areas, as well as in other cities and villages of the north

It may originally have been a basically Lao dish, but its popularity has today spread over most of Thailand. Mainly because it tastes good, and is also inexpensive; at street stalls it costs only about fifteen baht a dish.

Sohm taam can be eaten as a main dish or, usually, along with grilled chicken, both of which are accompanied by Khao Niew (Sticky Rice). Either way, it is also usually washed down with cooling glasses of Mekhong Thai whiskey served with lots of ice, soda and a bit of lime juice. Or, if you prefer nonalcoholic drinks, with lemon juice soda. And this combination of 'hot and cool' as strange as it may seem, really does seem to cool one down.'

One of the conveniences of Sohm Taam is that, although it is normally served very spicy hot, each portion is made separately, so one can specify exactly how hot or mild you would like your serving. Complementing the spicy taste of the salad itself is a serving of pieces of cabbage onto which one can spoon small bites of the salad, or long green beans, along with a ball of sticky rice. It is a dish that the Thai eat with their fingers, first taking the sticky rice, then pinching up a bit of the salad with that and either popping it into the mouth or folding the lot in a cabbage leaf. In this way, the salad itself is actually eaten in very small bites.

The one most important rule about sohm taam and the reason it is made in individual portions is that it must be eaten fresh. Fresh means within an hour of being prepared. If the green papaya is allowed to stand for any longer, even if kept refrigerated, it will turn rubbery.

One can always tell where sohm taam is being sold by looking for a large stone mortar along with stacks of green papayas and very long string beans. For some reason, it always seems to be prepared by a woman, and making sohm taam will make up her entire day or evening's work. Often they sell the salad from wheeled carts which can be easily moved from one place to another, then wheeled home at night for a cleaning and replenishing supplies for the following day.

The basic recipe starts with green papaya that has been peeled and sliced into long thin, noodle like strips. The remaining ingredients are made in advance and are ready to add to the mixture. Ingredients such as green sting beans, small whole and diced tomatoes, sliced limes ready to be squeezed, garlic, small hot green or red chilli peppers, a cup of tiny dried shrimp, a cup of roasted peanuts, a few tablespoons of palm sugar and fish sauce, which provides a salty taste.

Once the other ingredients are assembled, the sohm taam maker peels and shreds the papaya, tosses it into the mortar and starts pounding with the pestle. During the pounding process, the papaya strips are sprinkled with as many chillies as the customer may want along with a garlic clove or two, some diced tomatoes, cut green beans, a handful of peanuts and a teaspoon or so of lime juice. Finally, a tablespoon of palm sugar and two tablespoons of fish sauce are added. The dried shrimp is sprinkled on last, and then the maker samples the finished mixture to make sure it tastes 'right'. Trust her to add whatever is necessary.

Because each dish is made individually in this manner, you might have to wait a few minutes, especially if there are other customers in line ahead of you. The taste treat will certainly reward your patience in waiting.

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