Som Dtam @ Dinosaur Market

The Many Flavours of Som Dtam

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f there’s one dish every traveller to Thailand must try, it is Som Dtam (ส้มตำ); the wonderful, spicy green papaya salad. This dish is fast becoming the Kingdom’s national dish, if not already. It is listed in the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods compiled by CNN Go in 2011 and World’s 50 Best Foods compiled by CNN Travel in July 2017.

Som Dtam is the perfect dish for the heat and humidity of countries in SE Asia. In Thailand, from street food vendors to small family-run restaurants to more upmarket dining establishments, Som Dtam is a constant on the menu.

If you search online for Som Dtam, most websites will show you only the fantastic salad of green papaya, yet there are so many more versions of this national icon. Many travellers to Thailand would have only tried that one style of Som Dtam, yet locals know of so many more flavour sensations that travellers miss.

Originating in Laos, you will find versions of Som Dtam all around SE Asia. This dish epitomises the flavour profile of Thai food; hot, sour, salty and sweet.

In Thailand, it is a salad whose dressing is flavoured by chilli, palm sugar, garlic, lime juice and fish sauce. Usual additions are dried shrimps, tomatoes and snake beans for added texture and flavour.

Som Dtam Khaep Muu
Som Dtam Khep Muu

Below is a short guide to some of the best variations of Som Dtam; often simply called ‘Dtam’:

Som Dtam Thai ⦿ This is the standard version of green papaya that is internationally famous and most popular with travellers. Only this style contains the added crunch and flavour of peanuts.

Som Dtam Bpuu ⦿ Bpuu is crab and in this salad, it’s raw, brined rice paddy crabs that are used. It’s known for its strong, in your face flavour, however for lovers of crab, this is for you.

Som Dtam Bplaa Raa ⦿ The version has the addition of Bplaa Raa, which is fish fermented for six months or more. From the NorthEast region of Isaan, this condiment has a very strong aroma and a rather salty and sour flavour. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Dtam Khao Phot ⦿ This version uses sweet corn kernels instead of green papaya. The corn is sweet, offset by the sourness of the dressing.

Dtam Khao Phoht
Dtam Khao Phoht
Dtam Sua ⦿ Vermicelli noodles are mixed with green papaya, brined crab and fermented fish sauce to make this salad. The noodles add a soft, unctuous texture to this strong and pungent dish.

Som Dtam Bpuu Plaa Raa ⦿ For the lovers of big bold flavours, here you have the addition of both brined crab and the fermented fish. It will look dark on the plate, but packs a huge flavour punch.

Som Dtam Plate ⦿ This is a platter with Som Tam as the central food hero. Order this when you have a group people who love all different flavours as you can make it your own at the table by choosing from up to 8 different items. It’s also about discovering what makes Thai food so tasty.

Dtam Phon-La-Mai Ruam ⦿ This version substitutes mixed fruit like apples, grapes, pineapple and guava. It is like a spicy fruit salad and is a taste sensation. It also matches well to the tropical climate. The natural sweetness of the fruit also helps cut through the chilli heat.

Dtam Phon-La-Mai
Dtam Phon-La-Mai
You can, of course, add any other protein to a Som Dtam to make it your own; crispy pork belly, pork sausage, crispy fish or chicken – virtually anything.

Remember to always say how many chillies you want eg Phrik Saam Met for 3 chillies; this will give you a fairly medium spice level that is approachable for most people.

As a replacement for green papaya, try green mango, cucumber, carrot, pomelo or even soft coconut flesh; for a really local version, green banana is wonderful.

Any of the variations are usually eaten with sticky rice and grilled chicken – Gai Yaang, however it is also great with fermented rice noodles – Khanom Jeen, or pork crackling – Khep Moo.

When you see a food vendor with snake beans and tomatoes clearly on display, plus the oversized mortar – Khrok, you can rest assured you have found someone making Som Dtam. So be brave; order your new Som Dtam favourite today!

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