I first experienced this dish while living in Thailand when I was teaching English for a year with a charity between school and university. Som Tam is a salad of Laos origin, but has become a mainstay of Thai restaurants everywhere due to the spread of Isaan food and culture from the borders of North East Thailand. There’s not exactly a right or wrong way to make it, as a quick search of the web shall show, so don’t worry too much about not having certain ingredients. As you’ll see, my version here came simply from what I could get my hands on at the time.
Som Tam, which is usually made with green, unripe papaya, is one of my favourite things ever. To me it is the epitome of the Thai/Laos method of balancing flavours and textures. - You have the spice of the chilli, the sour tang of lime juice, the salty/savoury fish sauce, and the sweetness of the palm sugar; all mingling in the textures of crunchy green papaya (or cucumber in this case) and peanuts, the slight rubbery chew of the green beans, and the soft flesh of the tomatoes. If your mouth isn’t watering yet you may have a problem…
As I’ve already said, you can substitute the cucumber for any number of fruit/vegetables. I’ve done this recipe with unripe green mangoes before, but you could use the likes of pomelo, carrot, courgette (julienned, salted, left for 30mins to an hour, and squeezed to remove extra moisture), or any mix and match of ingredients with a reasonable crunch or bite. —Mark Low
2-3 as a side dish
Cloves of Garlic
Fish Sauce (or vegan/vegetarian alternative)
Roughly chop the garlic and chilli. Pound with a pestle and mortar, or use a knife and a touch of coarse sea salt to make a rough paste on your chopping board.
Remove tips of green beans and cut into 2” sections before adding to mortar. Pound with garlic and chilli until beginning to bruise and break up. (You can just hit them with the back/side of a knife is you have no mortar and pestle)
Add roughly chopped tomatoes, fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar. Combine well with a spoon and break up tomatoes slightly.
Julienne cucumber (I use a julienne peeler, as do most Thai/Laos restaurants, but a julienne attachment on a mandolin or some more time consuming hand chopping will work equally well) leaving some of the watery centre behind, and add to the mortar if large enough, or combine with the contents of the mortar in a suitable bowl.
Mix all the ingredients together well and allow to sit and mingle for a while. You’ll find more of the tasty som tam sauce develops as the salt in the fish sauce draws out the tomato and cucumber juices.
Stir well once more and plate up with a generous amount of chopped pistachios (I would normally use peanuts but was all out) sprinkled over the top.