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Soom Taam - a cole slaw salad from Siam.

The basic recipe starts with green papaya. But before this fruit (which can simply be an unripe papaya but is usually a special variety that has a firmer flesh and more neutral taste than its sweeter, rosier relatives) is peeled and then sliced into long thin, noodle-like strips, the remaining ingredients are made ready to add to the mixture: about a pound of green string beans; half a dozen small to medium sized tomatoes, diced; three limes, which are sliced so that the juice can be easily squeezed from them; garlic; small hot green or red chilli peppers; a cup of fried tiny shrimp, or a cup of roasted peanuts (according to the customer's preference); a few tablespoons of palm or brown sugar; and fish sauce, which provides a salty taste.

Sohm Taam (Som Tam) salad

Once the other ingredients are assembled, the "sohm taam" maker peels and shreds the papaya, tosses it into the mortar and stars pounding. As the pounding proceeds, the papaya strips are sprinkled with as many chillis 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. Then a tablespoon of palm sugar and two tablespoons of fish sauce are added. The dried shrimp pieces are then sprinkled spinkled on last, and then the maker samples the mixture to make sure it tastes ‘right'. If it doesn't taste ‘right' she will add whatever her taste buds tell her is necessary.

There's a dish that Thai folks eat,
  you can buy it on the street;
    you can even get it in a top hotel.

      But let me warn you first,
        it will give you such a thirst,
          and if eaten in Esarn it's hot as hell.

Back when Thailand was Siam,
    in some old northeastern farm,
    lived a lady who was poor as poor could be.

      When her husband called for food,
        she just did the best she could,
          with ingredients she hoped he'd never see.

One papaya, darkest green,
  was the main ingredient seen
    as she seeded, peeled and stroked it with a grater.

      Then she rinsed it throroughlee,
        removing acid, don't you see,
          and she set aside the pulp for some time later.

She then picked from a tree,
  cloves of garlic, one - two - three,
    and some chillies known in Thai as "prik khee noo";

      placed together in a mortar,
        she then began to sorta -
          beat this lot into a spicy, messy goo.

In next went the papaya,
  as the smell rose ever higher, then tomatoes,
    beans, and fish sauce called nam pla.

      This was beaten in the vessel
        by a solid wooden pestle
          and the stench it could be smelt both near and far.

To top it off she squeezed,
  as much lime juice as she pleased,
    and she added this unto the lethal brew.

      Sticky rice and salad green
        were then added to the scene,
          and her husband he did eat this spicy stew.

"You've surpassed yourself, my dear,"
  cried her husband, as his ear
    spewed forth steam, although his face reflected calm.

      "Does this dish posses a name?"
        "But, of course," replied his dame.
          "It will be forever known as my Sohm Taam."

This very simple fare
  can be had most anywhere,
    though the difference in price is just a joke.

      I much prefer to eat
        from a vendor in the street,
          as hotel bills are inclined to make me choke.

Now from Chiang Mai to Phuket,
  you can hear folks cry "bped - bped",
    as they order up this devil of a mixture.

      From the simplest of beginnings,
        it's enjoyed a lengthy innings,
          and Sohm Taam has now become a national fixture.

There are those who'd cast aspersions
  on its wide and varied versions,
    claiming theirs to be the the perfect recipee.

      But the farmers of Esarn,
        connoisseurs of real Sohm Taam,
          seem to know more of the dish than you or me.

So let us just accept
  that as cooks we are inept
    and we'll never match that Isaan farmer's wife.

      You must eat it as it comes,
        don't add nuts or crabs or plums;
          just be glad you can enjoy the simple life.

George Montgomery


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