One of the most popular dishes among Thais is not pad thai, as many outsiders might think, but rather somtam, the humble papaya salad. It’s so popular that wherever there is a 7-Eleven—and there are many: more than 8000 in Thailand, with about half of those in Bangkok—there will be at least one pushcart of somtam orbiting nearby.
On a recent outing, my girlfriends and I didn’t go out to find somtam next to any convenience stores, but instead we headed to a veritable kingdom of the sweet, sour, spicy, and salty salad: Baan Somtam Restaurant, or “Somtam’s House.”
Upon entering, our somtam radars sensed we had come to the right place. We picked a table out of the direct blast of the air conditioner and saw in one corner the somtam station where all the ingredients were on display and ready for action.
Tam som-o (somtam made with the grapefruit-like pomelo instead of papaya) captured our attention first, then tam Luang Prabang, todmun huaplee (fried curried banana blossom curry), and finally neem flower salad with shrimp in a tamarind and palm sugar sauce, called dok sadao yum koong. We tried to balance the dishes by getting different textures and layers of spiciness.
Once the tam som-o arrived, we glanced at each other and then attacked it right away. The bite-size pomelo swam in a tasty black sauce. It was different than other somtam sauces; we inhaled the deep scent of plara (fermented fish) and kapi (small shrimp paste). The sauce-soaked pomelo was surprisingly crispy and cool, too, which made the bites explode like a gentle volcano in my mouth. Cool fire, I said. I was glad I had insisted on ordering only “one chilli.”
The tam Luang Prabang was another interesting experience. The papaya came in thin slices, looking like clear flat noodles. Its sauce was similar to tam som-o with the addition of crispy kak moo (small pieces of deeply fried lard).
I then moved to todmun huaplee, which was like a soothing element. It was dipped in curry before being lightly fried. We also added a little bit of sweet plum sauce before devouring it. Dok sadao yum koong came last. The young buds of the neem flower introduced an interesting texture and taste, eliciting an unexpected reaction with its hint of bitterness that somehow got along well with nam pla wan (sweet and tamarind sour sauce).
Every dish we ordered satisfied us all. We agreed we had to come back—but next time with more friends so we could explore even more of the dishes.
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