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The Curious History of Som Tum (Papaya Salad)

August 24, 2020
IN Thai Cuisine

You know where to get the best Thai food in Seattle, and you know exactly what delicious delights to order when you get here. But even fans of our Som Tum might not know how this spicy Thai salad came about. 

Unlike the leafy and often boring salads of other cuisines, Thailand’s famous green papaya salad teases your taste buds with a tantalizing combination of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour elements. And, while the dish often varies from region to region, there’s nothing quite so unmistakably Thai as Som Tum with a side of sticky rice

But what are the typical papaya salad ingredients? And where did this dish originate? Let’s take a look at the curious history of Som Tum to find out!

Papaya Salad Ingredients 

Our popular Som Tum salad combines shredded green papaya, Thai chili, green beans, cherry tomatoes, dried baby shrimp, carrots, green beans, and roasted peanuts in a tangy lime sauce. If that’s not enough to get your mouth watering, we don’t know what will! 

Across Thailand, you’ll find similar combinations of these papaya salad ingredients. Although, some street market vendors add extra palm sugar to lessen the kick of the chilies or fermented fish for a pungent twist. But beyond these variations, the most important factors are the crunchy texture of the unripe papaya and the combination of different taste sensations. 

The Origins of Thai Papaya Salad

While papaya salad is a signature dish in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, it’s the Thai version that is the most famous. However, food historians believe that this dish originated in Laos.

This is because papaya salad is especially popular in Thailand’s northeastern region of Isaan, which shares a border with Laos. What’s more, papaya and chili have been key ingredients in Laotian cuisine since the 1800s. Although the Thai green papaya salad we all know and love is a little different from the papaya salad, they serve in Laos, which often includes green eggplant and fermented fish paste. 

In the Lao-Isaan dialect, Som Tum salad was originally called tum bak hoong. The ‘bak hoong’ part translates to mean ‘papaya’ while ‘tam’ means ‘pounded’. Since making green papaya salad involves a lot of pestle and mortar action, it makes sense that it was once known as ‘pounded papaya’. 

The name change came as a result of mass migration from the Isaan region to Bangkok. Migrant workers shared their love of the papaya salad they grew up eating, with both the recipe and the name changing over time for Som Tum to become the street market staple it is today. Although, the ‘pounded’ part of the dish’s name has remained, as Som Tum translates as ‘pounded sour.’

Discovering the History of Som Tum

When you think of Thai food, Som Tum is one of the first dishes that comes to mind. As such, it comes as a real surprise to learn that this dish didn’t even originate in Thailand, but rather in Thailand’s neighboring country of Laos!

Of course, this doesn’t make Som Tum any less of a star in Thai cuisine, where they’ve perfected the art of getting that balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy just right. 

Craving some delicious Thai Som Tum? Click “Order Now” in our header for pickup or delivery options.

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