The Intrepid Herbivores

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Som Tom – My love for Spicy Thai Papaya Salad

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This salad has been my favorite Thai dish since my brother introduced me to it over 14 years ago.  We were in a tiny, unadorned Thai restaurant in NYC, just below Washington Square Park.  After some discussion as to why the waiter had an eyepatch, I remember my brother getting really excited when he noticed Som Tom on the menu.  He had spent a large chunk of time in SE Asia backpacking and had come to love this dish during his extended time in Thailand.  He explained that it isn’t available at many Thai restaurants in the US since unripe papayas are hard to come by.  So, we ordered it and I fell for it immediately.  It was incredibly spicy (and I love spicy — the first words I learned in Thai were “very very spicy”), while still balancing the sweetness of palm sugar and the sour of lime juice.

Flash forward to last year’s trip to Thailand to film the pilot of the Intrepid Herbivores and we were eating as many spicy Som Tom’s as we could find.  In restaurants and even better, from ladies on the street who only make Som Tom in their “Pok Poks”, the ubiquitous giant wooden mortar and pestle that it is traditionally made in.  Pok Pok refers to the sound of the wooden pestle hitting the wooden mortar over and over.  I love the Pok Pok so much that I brought one home with me – my only large purchase in Thailand…

Well, I didn’t just want to write about how amazing this dish is without sharing a way to experience it for yourself, so here is a recipe that is tried and true.  The hardest ingredient to come by is the green (unripe) papaya.  Asian markets, especially near the coasts will generally have it.  If you can’t find it (sorry, midwest friends!), try substituting carrot, zucchini, and other veggies that are easy to shred into matchstick strips…

Recipe for Vegan Som Tom – Spicy Thai Papaya Salad


  •     8 to 12 Thai chillies, cut in thirds  **(less for milder, but this IS a spicy salad)
  •     8 cloves garlic, peeled and cut
  •     4 cups julienned peeled unripe green papaya – in strips 2 to 3″ long and 1/8″ thick    1 cup long beans, cut into 1 1/2″ segments
  •     1 cup julienned carrot
  •     Juice of 2 to 3 limes, to taste
  •     2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce (I use Bragg’s)
  •     2 to 3 tablespoons crushed palm sugar (can substitute cane or other sugar)
  •     12 cherry tomatoes, halved, or 2 small tomatoes, cut into small pieces
  •     1/4 cup coarse chopped/crushed unsalted roasted peanuts


1) Put garlic and chillies in large mortar and pestle and pound into a mushy paste. Add long beans and pound to bruise them so that they will soak up liquid.

2) Add the papaya, carrot, lime juice, soy sauce and palm sugar to the mortar, pounding and stirring several times, and they will pick up some of the oils.  After this is well mixed, add the tomatoes, pound gently.

3) Taste and adjust flavoring as desired.  Try to balance spicy with sweet (sugar), sour (lime) and salty (soy sauce).  Add more of anything that seems lacking;  to reduce spice, add sugar and lime.

4) Serve and sprinkle peanuts on top.  Enjoy!

Ingredients: Asian groceries carry Palm Sugar and Green Papaya.

** Spiciness note:  These instructions make a salad that is deliciously spicy!  If less spice is desired, use less chillies and don’t pound the chilis as much.

Makes: 6 large servings, Preparation time: 30 minutes of pounding fun!


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3 Comments on “Som Tom – My love for Spicy Thai Papaya Salad

  1. bourguignon
    April 9, 2012

    Sounds delicious. Now how do I get green papaya in Missoula?

    • joe
      April 10, 2012

      I’ll fedex it to you! 😉 Just kidding, maybe I’ll bring it when we come to Missoula next…

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This entry was posted on April 9, 2012 by in recipes, thailand and tagged , , , .