Green Papaya Salad: Refresh Crunchy Delicious
Updated: Feb 16
Homesickness is as bad as an illness. It is the feeling of insecure and need of familiarity, love and protection. Believe it or not? I was in the late 30 when homesickness hardly hit me after I moved from Thailand to the United Kingdom and now I live 6,000 miles away. I found it was difficult to adapt despite I loved to explore, learn new things and travel. The first half-year was my most challenging. I felt lonely and liked to sleep, stay home, read and watch television. I was not as active as I was used to be.
Most of the time, homesickness was visual triggers. When I see an image or a video related to my home country and it went straight to my heart. Social media were good tools to keep in touch with everyone I miss from Thailand. But seeing photos of friends who had a great time over there made me feel I was missing out and kept asking myself why it felt so far away. I missed the old days, family, friends, places, even the smell of my hometown.
I was embarrassed to talk about feeling homesick. But I was fortunate to meet the lovely GP/doctor McAdam who told me, "People can feel homesick by moving just a road away, and I felt homesick although my parents stayed another village". She asked, "did you eat your own food? Can you cook?" That was it! Thai cuisine could be my medicine. So I started to seriously learn to cook Thai dishes as well as coping with homesickness in my own ways.
I had been thinking about what's the food that can cure my homesickness. Then, the first picture in my mind was when I was 5 years old asking my mother to make me 'Som-Tum' (ส้มตำ) in Thai or known as Thai green papaya salad.
And of course, Mum made me 'Som-Tum Thai' (Bangkok style green papaya salad with roasted nuts) with half of a small chilli. I remember making sure she put chilli to it. She also made herself a 'Som-Tum Laos', or North-Eastern or E-San style green papaya salad, with 5 chillies! (please don't copy her, unless you're in an advanced level of eating spiciness).
Nothing tastes like Som-Tum. It is so special that really makes you go 'wow' when you eat up. It is one of the dishes that most reminds me of where I came from.
Every time I am feeling homesick, I make som-tum with birds eye's chillies to pick a punch. Oh, what a lovely sound of pounding in a mortar and such a refreshing smell.
Green papaya is a tropical fruit and can be found all over Thailand. The mystery of how papaya came to Thailand is still unknown. The early mentioning papaya was from Monsieur Simon de la Loubère, a French diplomat stated in his book, A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam (1693), "the Melons of Siam are not true Melons, but the Fruit of a Tree known in the Isles of America under the name of Papaya. I have not eaten of this Fruit".
Next, the Dutch traveller who came to Thon-Buri Kingdom (1771) argued that the Portuguese brought papaya to Thailand early Rattanakosin Era (Current period). However, the discovery in 1999, Bernard Maloney from Northern Ireland found papayas' pollen at the bottom of the royal pond in the ancient Ayutthaya's palace.
It is assumed that papaya had been brought in to Thailand since the Ayutthaya Era.
Not only, no one can prove how papaya came to Thailand, but also no strong evidence to prove the origin of som-tum. The oldest evidence of som-tum was in the Bang-Yee-Khan Palace's poem (นิราศวังบางยี่ขัน, 1869) by Princess Nareerattana, the daughter of King Rama IIII of Thailand.
The poem is about her royal visit to Mukdahan province in the northeast of Thailand. She mentioned that som-tum was the dish in Laos kingdom. Som-tum might have been a popular dish in the northeast and Laos.
Another 'wow' factor of Som-tum is very easy cooking. Kids can make Som-tum and it makes cooking really fun time for family. The keyword is gently pounding all ingredients in wooden or clay mortar. Just remember not pounding them too hard otherwise vegetables would be bruised.
Here is the great local receipt to make som-tum Thai. First, add garlic and pounding roughly and add fish sauce, palm sugar, tamarind juice, lime juice, dry shrimp, fresh chillies, green beans and papaya. Add roasted nuts at the end and barely crushed.
I like to top it with boiled king prawns. Som-tum Thai should taste sweet, sour, salty and hot. While the taste of som-tum Laos should be quite salty, sour and hot.
It is your choice to choose which one you prefer a som-tum Thai with roasted nuts as served in Bangkok or a spicy som-tum Laos with the fermented fish and small crabs that dominate the northeast version of the dish.
For me, nothing tastes like home like som-tum. And I truly believe in what Detective Inspector Mooney of Death in Paradise once said, "Home is not a home until you have made your own".
Traditionally, the best eating som-tum is with Thai sticky rice and BBQ chicken with spicy Esan sauce. And I can guarantee that one bite would not be enough.
Palm sugar or brown sugar as a substitute
Dried shrimp ( should be rinsed before use to reduce saltiness)
Green beans (slice to an inch long)
Bird’s eyes chillies
Green papaya or carrot as a substitute
Roasted peanuts or cashew nuts Boiled king prawns
Monsieur Simon de la Loubère, a French diplomat stated in his book, A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam, 1693 page 171
Bernard Maloney. Environmental Reconstruction at Ayutthaya. In Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsletter. October 1999
Thongchai Likitpornsawan, How som-tum came to Bangkok, Silapawattanatham magazine, February 2012
Sumol Whongwongsri, Delicious dishes from grandparents 100 years receipts, Sarakadee 2014
Krit Leualamai, Tonsaipalyjawak column, Silapawattanatham magazine, 2016
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