Friday, April 12, 2013

My Introduction to Som Tam (or, Green Papaya Salad)


It’s not often that dinner out is interrupted by a furious woman bursting into the restaurant and screaming in a language you can’t understand; nor does it often happen that your meal is interrupted by three uniformed policemen doing their best to restore calm as the entire restaurant staff, from cooks to waiters, gathers en masse to shout back in the same incomprehensible language.  

What were we to do? We had theater tickets and had to eat before 7:00. We’d found the one restaurant in town that was open on Easter Sunday. Despite the fact that it was completely empty, we’d sat down and ordered our food. Eyes on our watches, we were getting very hungry. And there we sat as the battle lines formed, doing our best not to pry into what clearly wasn’t any of our business. All evidence suggested that we weren’t going to be eating anytime soon.

Just as we were thinking we ought to leave, a plate of spring rolls made it to the table. Not the vegetarian ones we’d ordered, but we devoured them anyway. Not bad. Then something arrived that looked sort of like a plate of noodles. We hadn’t ordered any noodles, but the fight was still raging, more policemen were arriving, clearly the waiters had more important things on their mind than our dinner, so, gratefully, we tasted them. 

And immediately realized that what we were eating was 1) not noodles at all; and 2) not just good, but magnificent. Turns out that we’d been given precisely what we’d ordered—Som Tam, or Green Papaya Salad—without having realized it.

No doubt many of you already know that green papayas can be shredded into spaghetti-like strands (sort of like the aptly named spaghetti squash), but we, who didn’t know this, imagined we’d been given a cold noodle salad.

Live and learn, as they say. Papayas have long been one of my favorite fruits and there are few things I like more than a bowl of papaya cubes sprinkled with lime juice. But when I think papaya, I think orange—whether the pale orange of an apricot or a cantaloupe, or the more vivid hue of a persimmon, carrot, or pumpkin. I don’t think greenish-white. Somehow or other, green papaya salad had never made it onto my radar screen. Well, consider me a convert.

Sour, salty, spicy, and sweet: what could be better than that classic Thai blend of lime juice, fish sauce, chili peppers, and just a touch of sugar? When it’s stirred into  shredded green papaya, green beans, tomatoes, and chopped peanuts, the result is addicting. Trust me.

Knowing I’d need another fix—and very soon—I googled Green Papaya Salad right away and found not only dozens of recipes, but also—much to my delight—that in order to make it, I’d need a shredding tool sold under the names of Thai Kom Kom Miracle Knife or Kiwi Pro-Slice Peeler. With this amazing little gizmo, I am now able to reduce an unripe or green papaya to spaghetti-like strands, thus being able to re-create at a moment’s notice the salad we’d all but inhaled despite the shouting, doors slamming, and sirens that accompanied our introduction to Som Tam

Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)
(adapted from, literally, dozens of recipes)

2 green papayas, peeled & shredded
½ lb string beans, cut into 1” lengths, blanched until crisp-tender & 
plunged under ice water (Thai yardlong beans are traditional)
2-3 plum tomatoes, seeded & chopped
½ cup chopped unsalted peanuts

                                                      ¼ cup Asian fish sauce                 
½ cup lime juice (to taste)
2 tbsp sugar (palm sugar is tradition, but brown will do)
1 tsp minced garlic
2 Thai bird’s eye chilies (or any other chili pepper), minced
A few tablespoons dried shrimp (traditional, but the salad’s fine without)

Toss the salad ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix the dressing ingredients together and pour over. Stir well. Garnish with chopped cilantro before serving.
[Note: traditionally, this salad is pounded together, ingredient by ingredient, in a mortar and pestle and no doubt there are many purists who insist the salad can be made in no other way. I’ve heard the same claimed of pesto sauce—that it doesn’t taste authentic unless the basic and garlic are pounded in a mortar and pestle. What can I say other than acknowledge that according to such purists, neither my pesto nor my som tam is authentic. Somehow, I can live with the shame.]

Epilogue: It turned out that the shouting concerned who owed or didn’t owe whom money. The apologetic & embarrassed owner didn’t want to charge us for the meal, but the food was so good, we insisted. Not only that, we’re going back for more.