I admit it, I’m addicted to somtum. This ultra-spicy concoction, a salad of shredded papaya, fish sauce, a copious amount of chilli and a whole host of other ingredients depending on the type, is an assault on the senses hailing from the Isaan region of northeast Thailand and undoubtedly the national dish beyond all national dishes that keeps the Thai nation going. From a street-side cart to a five-star restaurant, you can be sure you’ll get a good pounding from a plate of somtum.
But I’ll bet that among the small percentage of tourists who venture away from green curries and pad thai to try it, even fewer try the whole host of varieties available throughout the country. Most will either pick from an English-language menu or just order ‘somtum’ without specifying any further – but if you fancy stepping it up a little without taking a plunge into the dark, here are just a few of the many creations you’ll find.
The most ubiquitous variety of papaya salad going, and the one you’re likely to end up with if you order simply ‘somtum’ (albeit perhaps toned down slightly on the chilli front), the shredded and pounded papaya in somtum Thai is loaded with fish sauce, chillies, garlic, palm sugar, lime juice, dried shrimps and peanuts – throw in a halved tomato or two and a few chopped green beans, and you have yourself an explosion of flavours that is difficult to beat – sweet, sour and everything in between.
Somtum puu pla prah
The true product of the northeast region of Thailand from which somtum originally hails, somtum puu pla prah is also the one that gets the most horrified reactions from unsuspecting foreigners – less so for the small, salted crabs (puu) that are added and smashed up with the pestle and mortar, but for the pla rah, fermented (read rotten) gourami fish (not anchovies as many mistakenly believe) that are quite literally left to stink out in a bucket of water for several months before being used to add an unmistakable, inimitable salty flavour to the dish. Such is the method of producing pla rah that the Thai government periodically puts out warnings about the risk of catching hepatitis from the speciality; warnings ignored, of course, by this nation of foodies who are going after flavour and flavour alone, regardless of the dangers involved. If you can stomach it then somtum puu pla rah is a dish that, once you’ve accustomed yourself to what it actually is, is strangely addictive. I don’t tend to eat the pieces of pla rah fish, rather just soaking up the flavours that they bring. Somtum puu pla rah is less sweet than somtum Thai, with little or no sugar being added, and doesn’t come with the dried prawns or peanuts that are added to the staple dish – and, like just about everything from the northeastern Isaan region, it is unforgivingly loaded with handfuls and handfuls of freshly smashed up, potent Thai birds eye chillies.
Somtum puu maa
Usually found in coastal regions with an abundance of fresh seafood, this plate combines the sweetness of somtum Thai with raw, blue and lightly marinated horseshoe crab – soak up the ocean-fresh flavours and then suck the sweet meat from the legs. My favourite type of somtum by far, you can see more about it in this post on Krabi’s food scene and in this food porn extraordinaire.
Somtum kai kem
Not a favourite of mine, but certainly with its fans, somtum kai kem is a variation on the classic Thai papaya salad with its dried prawns, palm sugar and peanuts, loaded up further with heavily salted, hard-boiled duck eggs that are halved and tossed in amongst the shredded papaya. The saltiness adds a new dimension to the otherwise sweet somtum, though I find the eggs too much on the dry side for my liking.
Somtum hoy dong
The latest addition to my favourites list, somtum hoy dong is perhaps even a step up from somtum puu pla rah in terms of foodie adventurousness. At once fiery hot and wonderfully sweet, yet with a different kind of sweetness from somtum Thai that seems to come not from any sugar that’s been added, but instead naturally from the fermented cockles that are thrown in and go some way to giving this salad its intriguing red glow. Somtum hoy dong is available pretty widely, but I had this plate at a canal-side seafood restaurant at Amphawa floating market. This restaurant in Bangkok’s Thong Lor area also looks like a promising place to get your fix.
This one is admittedly not as widespread as other varieties, and like somtum puu maa generally only found by the seaside – I’ve only ever seen this on a menu once, where I ate this dish on the island of Koh Si Chang. I wasn’t a great fan, finding there to be a little too much in the way of prawns, squid and the like crammed in for the somtum to still pack a sweet-and-sour chilli punch (not helped by the fact that the waitress didn’t appear to believe me when I said I wanted five chillies – that’s not a lot really if you like it hot!). But you won’t go far wrong if you want something that tones it down a bit and with a taste of the sea.
Somtum sua takes your devilish somtum puu pla rah (with salted crab and rotten gourami fish) and throws in a whole heap of kanom jeen rice noodles, in addition to the shredded papaya that makes its base. It both makes the dish a little more substantial and filling, and tempers the heat of the chilli a little to make it just slightly easier to bear. You should be able to customise any of the other varieties with the addition of rice noodles if you so please.
Somtum kode mua sua (also known as somtum pla)
I have yet to experience this one in Thailand, but I tried it for the first time recently at a Thai restaurant in London – the concept is that it is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ papaya salad with just about everything thrown in from all the other varieties I’ve featured. So expect salted crabs, salted eggs, rice noodles, prawns, mussels, squid, rotten fish – and slightly less common somtum accoutrements like sour Thai sausage, ham pieces etc. It’s an interesting mix, with rather too many flavours in one hit for my liking (plus the plate I ordered was horrendously salty; probably no real surprise once you consider what went into it), but one worth trying once you’ve exhausted the list above!