Street Food Swoop – Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)

I’ve heard that people dream of Thailand’s green papaya salad for years after their first taste.

It’s a light refreshing dish that can carry a kick, searing your mouth as well as your memory.

Green papaya salad with salted crab

It is a surprisingly easy salad to assemble — if you have access to the ingredients.

For some reason, I never really thought of preparing this salad at home. It’s so easy to find all over Chiang Mai, and so cheap — just another of those dishes that hardly seem worth the effort of doing yourself. But after our super-nanny taught us the ins and outs of som tam, I am a fan of home-prepared green papaya salad.

I prefer the version with dried baby shrimp and only one chilli. Darling Man prefers the version with salted baby crab and three chillies. Super-nanny prefers the version with 15 chillies (that’s right, FIFTEEN!) and some fermented fish sauce that she bought and put in our fridge and I am now too scared to touch.

We did, however, need to go shopping for some pretty major som tam hardware — an enormous mortar and pestle, big enough to take a bath in. I’m sure you could prepare the salad in a heavy pot, possibly using a potato masher as a makeshift pestle. The important technique you need is the crushing, then a stern mix to work the wet ingredients through the salad.

The other item we needed that I was not familiar with was palm sugar. If you don’t have (or can’t be bothered getting) palm sugar, regular sugar or honey can be substituted.

Dried shrimp should be available from Asian grocery stores all over the world. If you can’t find any (or can’t be bothered), just omit the shrimp. You’ll still have a fabulous salad.

As for the green papaya, after years of eating it, I have only just realised that it is actually a different fruit to the yellow or orange-fleshed sweet papaya (or paw-paw in Australia). If green papaya isn’t available, you could use green mango or cucumber.

To shred the papaya, you can buy a little kitchen implement, kind of like a potato peeler, that will give you lovely uniformly-shaped shreds. You could also use a cheese grater, although the shreds would be a bit short.

There’s actually a more fun way to shred a peeled papaya – hold the papaya in one hand and your knife in the other. Now chop at the papaya like you’re in a low budget slasher movie. Actually, scrap that, you could hurt yourself. Chop carefully, leaving closely-spaced grooves in your papaya. Then slice the shreds off.

How to shred green papaya

So now you know how to shred… here, in all its tarty tasty crunchy glory, is Super-Nanny’s Som Tam Recipe. (Serves two.)


3 chillies (or more or less, according to taste)
4-6 cloves of garlic
2 limes, sliced into easy-to-squeeze segments
1 tblsp fish sauce
1 tblsp palm sugar
handful of green beans, cut into short lengths
3 ripe tomatos, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 tblsp of sun-dried shrimp
half a green papaya, shredded
2 tblsp coarsely crushed roasted peanuts

Now it’s time to grab your huge mortar and pestle, or substitute pounding equipment, and get to work.

Place the chilli and garlic into the mortar, squeeze the juice from the limes and add the fish sauce and palm sugar. Pound into a rough mess.

Put the beans and tomato into the mortar. Pound a few times to bruise the beans and release the juice from the tomato.

Now the shrimp goes into the mortar. Pound a little bit more. (Quite a cathartic dish, isn’t it?)

Put the shredded papaya in last and do some final pounding (not too much, the papaya should remain crisp), then mix all the ingredients together thoroughly in a kind of tossing motion.

Heap the som tam onto a plate and sprinkle with the crushed roasted peanuts.

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9 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. Nancie says:

    Always has been my favorite. I like SIX chilies!!

  2. yum!! i want to see a photo of the mortar and pestle. and i think i’d go NO chilies!!
    wandering educators recently posted..Essence – the Horses of Deborah Butterfield

    • Barbara says:

      At home, the no chilli option gives you no spice. But if you order no chillies when you’re out, you still get a pretty spicy som tam because the motar and pestle is just soaked in chilli juice. One chilli in street food som tam can be pretty fiery.

  3. Looks pretty tasty to me, but I’d have to make it at home because I cannot handle that level of spiciness.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..How To Survive a 28-Hour Bus Ride

  4. I eat papaya salad many times here in BKK
    great site btw! recently posted..Fuji Restaurant Chain Bangkok Thailand

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