Som Tum: A Papaya Story

 

Som Tum Phu Pla Raa

Pok Pok Pok is the sound of the pestle beating the mortar.

Papaya Pok Pok is the way some Thais describe to foreigners a national dish of green papaya salad.

There was a papaya tree standing tall and slim at the back of my house in a suburb east of Bangkok. With its roots sprawling under our dampened washing area, it was the most fertile tree we had, always bearing fruit all year round. P’ Nee, or Sister Nee, one of the housemaids, always had her eye on the tree. Everyday around noon after she finished cleaning the house, she would walk over to that wet plot of land, her silk sarong rustling gently as she took her brisk steps. The sun cast summer rays that turned her hair into reddish brown curls. Tilting her head up at a forty-five-degree angle, she danced around the umbrella-shaped plant, eying all the fruit. Then she reached for a long bamboo stick with a loop of strong wire and a net attached to one end – the same tool we used to pick mangoes, rose apples and other fruits in our garden. Thrusting the loop into the foliage, she pulled down the plumpest, greenest papaya in a single snap. The fruit dropped onto the bottom of the net, swinging gently like a baby in a cradle. Its sap splattered lightly on the ground.

“P’ Nee, are you going to make Som Tum again?” I shouted from inside the house.

“Yes, of course,” she bellowed back, grinning and ignoring my teasing remark. For a twenty-something woman with severe facial acne and a wild mop of curly hair, P’ Nee looked endearingly lovely, standing there under the shade of green.

I marched out of the house and stopped next to her. “Don’t you ever get tired of it? You’ve been eating it everyday for years and years!”

“No. I’ll never get tired of it. Not in this life time,” she scoffed, “I’ve got to have it everyday or I’ll get fidgety.” She winked and ruffled my bob hair.

P’ Nee’s obsession with Som Tum also made me fidget. What was in there that’s so special? I’d tried her Som Tum before and was far from being impressed: a plate of shredded papaya tossed in a wildly spicy sauce that made my mouth virtually puffed up from the heat. But what’s even worse? Whatever it was that she put in the Som Tum, it had a rotten odor that gave me waves of goose bumps.

“What’s that awful smell?” I squealed, terrified by the lingering foulness in my mouth mixed with the wild imagination of a ten-year-old. “A dead rat or something?”

“It’s just Pla Raa. And it’s not awful.” P’ Nee raised her voice and frowned. “It’s the best thing in this Som Tum!” She widened her eyes while taking another bite from a mound of shredded green papaya, which sat in a pool of muddy sauce.

The leg of a salted fresh water crab, one of the most popular add-ons in Som Tum.

Pee Nee is native to Khon Khaen, a province in the Isaan region where Pla Raa is a staple seasoning. In essence, Pla Raa is fermented fresh water fish, cured in salt for a period of 6-12 months until reaching the state of crumbling chunks in thick, dark brown sauce with a pungent odor that may create heavers in the stomachs of smelly food newbies. Almost every Isaan household has its own Pla Raa recipe, each one boasting a unique taste, texture and aroma. Yet I imagine that anyone who is not familiar with stinky food would find Pla Raa – no matter which version it is – to be the opposite of appetizing. An article in a travel website makes an interesting comparison between Pla Raa and Nam Pla (fish sauce): “Bplaa raa is to nam bplaa … what a fine French blue cheese, shot through with veins of mold, is to cream cheese.” Yet the Isaan folks can’t live without it. They add heaps of this malodorous potion to almost every dish they consume. Well, imagine you were one of the Isaan folks. Why wouldn’t you use your favorite flavor enhancer, Pla Raa, in your favorite salad, Som Tum?

But it’s not only the Isaan folks who are obsessed with Som Tum, my estimate is that ninety per cent of the Thai population adores it. It is one of those dishes – like Pad Kraprao, Pad Thai, Laab, Nam Prik, Tom Yum – that excite the national taste bud. Usually served with steamed sticky rice and grilled meats, Som Tum surely is one of the mainstays of Thailand’s hawker fare. The most Sab – deliciously hot and spicySom Tum is from countless vendors roaming the city streets day and night. But you’ll also find it anywhere from five-star hotels, award-winning restaurants, hipster cafes, karaoke bars, street markets, to grimy shacks along the road. It seems everywhere you go, you hear the sound Pok Pok Pok.

The variants of Som Tum are as diverse as pastas in Italy or Ramen in Japan. And since there has been an increase in popularity of Tum Taad, Som Tum served in large round copper trays for sharing, Thais are indulging in choose-your-own-topping sentiment similar to what you’ll find in a frozen yogurt bar or a pizza café. Thais are immensely imaginative with food. That’s why you might notice an intriguing list of toppings in a Tum Taad eatery: salted eggs, caramelized peanuts, young durian, jackfruits, bitter melon, sweet corns, santol, green bananas, vermicelli, apple snails, pork scratching, raw blue swimmer crabs, grilled river prawns, and many other local herbs, vegetables and condiments. Another popular way to up the ante on your Som Tum is to deep fry the green papaya in a light batter before mixing in the spicy sauce and the toppings. The crispy nests of shredded papaya oozed with a spicy sweet and sour sauce definitely tick the approval box of most Asians who adore crunchy flavourful bites.

 

Som Tum Phu Pla Raa (salted fresh water crabs and fermented fish) prepared in the traditional duo: the wooden pestle and mortar.

 

The Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn – with her characteristic humor and imagination – composed a song about Som Tum in 1973, when the dish gradually gained popularity in the capital. The Thai lyrics can be translated into:


“Let me tell you how to make Som Tum

How easy! How yummy!

Just listen and learn from my special recipe

First buy a green papaya, not too large not too small

With the sharp edge of the knife

Knock knock on the white flesh

Cut cut into thin shreds

Pound pound the chili and garlic

Now that it’s fragrant,

Pour in fish sauce and lime juice.

Add also some palm sugar

Dried shrimps, tomatoes and don’t forget snake beans

Eat with those you love

But don’t be a glutton

Or your stomach will churn from the spicy spicy Som Tum”

There are not that many folktales about the origin of Som Tum. But one of which credits it to the Laotian who arrived as prisoners of war during the period when Ayuthaya was still the capital of the Siamese Kingdom (1351 – 1767). These foreigners from the Northeast introduced a unique way of cooking by mixing local ingredients – herbs, spices and native vegetation – in the mortar and pestle. They called it Tum Som. Tum means to pound, while Som denotes the tartness and tanginess that are the dominant flavor of the dish.

 Unlike what many Thais believe, the papaya was not an indigenous fruit of Southeast Asia. It was brought from Central America where it had first appeared in the Dominican Republic and Panama in the early 16th Century. The plant then reached Southeast Asia in 1550, when the Spanish arrived on the Philippines’ shore with the papaya seeds. The Spanish, along with the Portuguese, further promoted the papaya in the neighboring Malay Peninsula whereby it eventually arrived in Siam[. The word Malakaw ­– the Thai word for papaya – likely refers to the city of Malacca in Malaysia, which was one of the stops the Spanish and Portuguese visited when hauling papayas from the New World to Southeast Asia. The story goes that the Laotian had gotten their hands on this novelty fruit and soon enough they were pounding the shredded white flesh of unripe papayas. Hence the inception of the green papaya salad on the Siamese soil.

It was not until the 1960’s though ­– with the completion of the Mitraparp Road that links the Central Plain to the Northeast – that the papaya was widely grown in Isaan region, and Som Tum quickly became the hallmark of Isaan cuisine. Around a decade later, Isaan people, in turn, popularized Som Tum in Bangkok and its vicinity when many migrated to the capital looking for jobs as laborers, low-ranking wage earners and street merchants. Like many other folks who had left their farms and rice fields after the extreme “Toong Gula” droughts from the 1970’s onwards, P’ Nee was another typical Isaan woman who headed for Bangkok in search for a better life.

I still remember P’ Nee’s silk sarongs which she wove herself. The colorful fabric was embroidered with intricate geometric patterns of the Northeast craftsmanship. She wore them while wading through household chores, all the while singing along to Mau Lam, the traditional Isaan tunes blasting out of from an old transistor radio. The jaunty tunes made a stark contrast to the lyrics divulging stories of urban hardship and working class life amidst departure, betrayal and heartbreak.

Then she made her way to the papaya tree.

References


Eating Asia (2006) A Sublime Stench: Bplaa Raa. [Online] Available from http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2006/08/a_sublime_stenc.html

Thompson, D. (2002) Thai Food (Pavilion: London), p. 10

ประวัติส้มตำ (2016) infographic ประวัติคาวมเป็นมาของส้มตำ Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-M-uRlwuS4

Piper, J. M. (1989). Fruits of South-East Asia: Facts and Folklore (pp. 13-16). Singapore: Oxford University Press.


 

 

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