This post is about a family recipe that I pull out consistently when we need to lighten up our plates, which is right about now courtesy of the steady supply of goodie tins from our wonderful neighbors over the holidays. Have you ever had, or even heard of, the Thai dish called Som Tum? It's a green papaya salad. And more importantly, it is light and adaptable and I swear it does something magical to waistlines (just in case you consumed your body weight in chocolate like I did).
I make som tum often for my lunch because I think it's a cinch to throw together. But I recognize that this is largely due to the countless nearby Asian marts, where I go to buy bags and bags of pre shredded green papaya. I also have the necessary supplies such as a large, heavy mortar and pestle handy (but if you don't, don't worry, I give you some tips on how to get around it). If you cannot find pre shredded papaya, you might find an entire green papaya at a large grocery store. If you buy a whole one, you will need to peel it and shred the flesh--I use a grooved peeler in order to get nice long shreds but in a pinch, you could use a grater (your shreds will just be shorter).
There are countless ways to make som tum, depending on the region from which the recipe hails. You can add bits of dried shrimp (if you want it briney), or green beans or tomotoes...throw in whatever you want, it is a salad after all. But I'm going to tell you how I like to make it, which is pretty traditional with one twist--the addition of roasted peanuts.
1-2 (depending on how hot you like it) fresh chilies, serranos are fine
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 shallot, chopped
2 cups of finely shredded green papaya (about 1 small papaya...in a pinch you can substitute 1 cup cabbage and 1 cup carrot, both finely shredded. You'll get a similar flavor profile but you'll be on an unauthentic path so don't tell my Thai mother)
1-1 1/2 teaspoon sugar (palm sugar would be even better if you have it)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
the juice from 1-2 limes (sorry I can't be precise--start with 1/2 and keep adding until you're happy, then make a note of it. I usually use about 1 and 1/2 small limes, but I like it sour).
a handful of grape or cherry tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
1/2 cup salted, dry roasted peanuts
Place the peanuts in the bowl of a large, heavy mortar (see note below if you don't have one), and lightly pound to break up the peanuts. Set aside. Place the garlic, shallot, and peppers in the mortar and pound and grind until they break down (but not so much they become mushy), scraping down the sides as needed. Add the shredded papaya a handful at a time, pounding after each addition, until the papaya shreds become limp and soft (3-5 minutes), scraping and mixing as necessary.
Add the sugar, salt, and fish sauce, pounding a little after each addition.
Add the lime juice and quartered tomatoes, pounding gently.
Taste the "dressing" in the bottom of the mortar and adjust to taste. You're going for the quintessential balance of Thai flavors--typically, equal parts sour, hot, salty, and sweet, but just adjust it until you're happy. I like mine heavy on the sour note.
To serve, use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the salad to a plate and drizzle with some of the remaining sauce. Garnish with the crushed peanuts. This serves about 4 for an appetizer or 2 for a decent lunch portion.
Note: my good friend reports that she has made this salad without a mortar by placing the ingredients in a gallon size heavy-duty ziploc and pounding with a rolling pin. Sounds good to me, but again, do not tell my mother.