Green papaya salad is a spicy salad made from shredded unripe papaya. It is of Lao origin but it is also eaten throughout Southeast Asia. Locally known in Cambodia as bok l’hong (Khmer: បុកល្ហុង, pronounced [ɓok lhoŋ]), in Laos as tam som (Lao: ຕໍາສົ້ມ) or the more specific name tam maak hoong (Lao: ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ, pronounced [tàm.ma᷆ːk.hūŋ]), in Thailand as som tam (Thai: ส้มตำ, pronounced [sôm tām]), and in Vietnam as gỏi đu đủ. Som tam, the Thai variation, was listed at number 46 on World’s 50 most delicious foods compiled by CNN Go in 2011.
The dish combines the five main tastes of the local cuisine: sour lime, hot chilli, salty, savoury fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar. The ingredients are mixed and pounded in a mortar; The general Lao name tam som literally means “pounded sour”, however, the more specific Lao name tam maak hoong literally means “pounded papaya”. In Khmer, the name bok l’hong also means “pounded papaya”. In Thai, the name som tam, (a reversal of the Lao name), literally translates as “sour pounded”. However, other pounded salads in Thailand are consistent with the Lao naming convention in which the word tam (“pounded”) is listed first.
Despite the use of papaya, which one may think of as sweet, this salad is actually savoury. When not yet ripe, papaya has a slightly tangy flavour. The texture is crisp and firm, sometimes to the point of crunchiness. It is this that allows the fruit to withstand being beaten in the mortar.
In Laos, green papaya salad is one of the traditional staples of the Lao. Pounded salads in Laos all fall under the parent category of tam som, which may or may not contain green papaya, however, when no specific type of tam som is mentioned, it is generally understood to refer to green papaya salad. For absolute clarity, however, the name tam maak hoong may be used, since this name means “pounded papaya”.
In Thailand, it is customary that a customer ask the preparer to make the dish suited to his or her tastes. To specifically refer to the original style of papaya salad as prepared in Laos or Isan, it is known as ส้มตำลาว or som tam Lao or simply as tam Lao, and the dish as prepared in central Thailand may be referred to as som tam Thai.
Traditionally, the local variety of green papaya salad in the streets of Bangkok is very hot due to the addition of a fistful of chopped hot bird’s eye chilli. However, with its rising popularity among tourists, it is now often served not as hot.
Together with the papaya, some or most of the following secondary items are added and pounded in the mortar with the pestle:
- Sugar (traditionally palm sugar)
- Fish sauce
- Dried shrimp
- Brined Crabs. These are not marine crabs, but local salted black crabs (rice-field crab) found in the flooded rice-fields and canals. Isan people eat the entire crab, including the shell.
- Shrimp paste
- Pla ra / padaek
- Yardlong beans
- Hog Plums
- Raw Thai eggplant
Green papaya salad is often served with sticky rice and kai yang/ping gai (grilled chicken). It can also be eaten with fresh rice noodles (Lao: sen khao poon / Thai: khanom chin) or simply as a snack by itself with, for instance, crispy pork rinds. The dish is often accompanied by raw vegetables on the side to mitigate the spiciness of the dish.
Thai rice-field crabs belong to the freshwater crab genera Sayamia, Chulathelphusa, and Esanthelphusa (previously classified as part of Somanniathelphusa), which all belong to the family Parathelphusidae.
Green papaya salad is claimed as an innovation of the Lao people, which was introduced to central Thailand and the rest of the world by the Lao/Isan migrants moving to Bangkok to seek work. Variations of the dish are found throughout Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and as well as in the West, where it is more commonly known by its Thai name.
A non-spicy green papaya salad version also exists in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, which is much sweeter; it often contains crushed peanuts, and is less likely to have padaek or brined crab. These last are eaten raw, and both the Lao government and Thai government periodically issues health warnings about the risk of hepatitis. Dried brine shrimp are used in this Central Thai version. There are also versions that make use of unripe mangoes, apples, cucumbers, carrots, and other firm vegetables or unripe fruit. Besides using varieties of fruits or vegetables as the main ingredient a popular option is to use vermicelli rice noodle wherein the dish is known as tam sua.
Instead of papaya, other ingredients can be used as the main ingredient. Popular variations in Laos and Thailand include:
- Tam maak taeng / Tam taengkwa, with cucumber, usually the small variety
- Tam maak muang / Tam mamuang, with green and unripe mango
- Tam maak kuai / Tam kluai, with banana, while still green and unripe
- Tam krathon, with santol, while still hard and unripe
- Tam hua pli, with banana flower
- Tam mayom, with Malay gooseberry
- Tam som o, with pomelo
- Tam mu yo, with mu yo sausage
- Tam phonlamai ruam, with mixed fruit