Som Tum or Thai spicy papaya salad is a popular Thai dish originated from north eastern Thailand. The dish is famous for being rich in flavour i.e. a mix of sweet, spicy and sour. There are many types of Som Tum that you may find in Thailand, or at any Thai restaurant. Therefore, it is important to know your Som Tum before making any order! Also, you need to pay attention to some ingredients in Som Tum as it may contain ingredients like peanuts or shrimps which some people are allergic to). In this article, we will be covering different types of Som Tum and finish it off with whether the dish is vegetarian friendly.
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Different types of Thai papaya salad
The main ingredient of som tum is the shredded green, raw papaya. Other common vegetables include tomatoes and green beans (sometimes carrots as well). The dish derives its taste from garlic, chili, tamarind, lime, fish sauce and a bit of sugar. See recipe here.
Som Tum Thai is the first variation of som tum that we will cover. It has unique ingredients including dried shrimp and peanut on top of your usual raw papaya, tomato and green beans. Som Tum Thai is common in central Thailand so you will be able to find it anywhere in Bangkok.
Som Tum Phu or crab Som Tum is a variation where either preserved sesarma crab or flower crab is added to Som Tum dish to enhance the flavor. Recipe here.
Som Tum Lao or Som Tum Pla Ra is characterized by a special ingredient called “Pla Ra” or fermented fish. This type of Som Tum with a small portion of fermented fish will have a stronger smell and flavor compared to other types of Som Tum. For those who enjoy the fermented fish enhancement, they will quote this is the best type of Som Tum. On the other hand, others who are not a fan will find the dish pungent. It is either you love or hate it.
Som Tum cucumber salad replaces shredded green papaya with refreshing sliced cucumber for its main ingredient. Some variation of the som tum cucumber salad also add Thai sausage, shrimp or grilled pork into the mix which make the dish interesting.
Som Tum with fruits uses fruits as the main ingredient instead of shredded raw papaya or cucumber. Common fruits you will find in this type of Som Tum include apple, guava, pomelo and corn (although corn is not exactly a fruit). Some recipes will also add dragon fruit, grape, kiwi, pineapple. Actually, you can add any fruit you like, but the rule of thumb is to avoid adding watery fruit like watermelon. The reason being is obvious, you do not want your Som Tum too watery.
How to enjoy a meal with Thai papaya salad
You can have Som Tum on its own, but usually Thai people enjoy Som Tum with a number of other dishes. The most common one is to have sticky rice or kanom jeen as carb companion for Som Tum. Other than that, you can add some protein source like grilled/fried chicken or pork neck (which go really well with Nam Jim Jaew dipping sauce). This is because the typical Som Tum does not have any meat inside. Som Tum is already quite rich with vegetables but usually there are other raw vegetables and herbs accompanying this dish. This can include cabbage, basil leaves, green beans and cucumbers.
Is Som Tum vegetarian friendly?
If you are a strict vegetarian then the answer might be no, as most Som Tum dishes contain fish sauce and Som Tum Thai contains dried shrimp. However, some shops offer vegetarian Som Tum, for example Som Tum Thai without dried shrimp. Otherwise Som Tum with cucumber or fruits are generally vegetarian friendly.
Find out more about the Thai papaya salad calories in our dedicated article!
Should you try Som Tum?
Yes, it is a famous Northeastern Thai dish that can be found everywhere in Thailand. It is refreshing, very apt for Thailand’s hot weather. There are a lot of variations that come with Som Tum. Also, most shops usually can customize your Som Tum (you can tell them what to include or not include) if you have a specific preference for this dish. If you are a vegetarian, you can try asking the vendor if they can make you a vegetarian version (sans fish sauce, dried shrimp etc). Given that it uses a lot of raw vegetable ingredients, you can treat it like salads and it does have similar health benefits like any other salads.
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