Things you probably didn’t know about Somtum!
Each province in Isaan prepare somtum differently
Each province in the northeast has its own distinctive way of fermenting plara, hence the people in Isaan tend to eat somtum in different ways. Those in the lower Isaan region, like Khon Kaen, usually consume papaya salad with pla ra kaeng, which means they like their somtum with milder and more balanced flavors. On the other hand, folks in upper Isaan, like Nakhon Phanom or Ubon Ratchathani, tend to enjoy their somtum with stronger flavors, and end up with making their salad with pitch-black fish juice which most people find unbearable. Pla ra is usually salty but the version in Nakhon Ratchasima has a sour taste because its residents substitute rice bran for toasted rice, which results in more acidity during fermentation. Also, while somtum sua in Bangkok and in most provinces refers to somtum mixed with khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles), it means a different thing in Nakhon Phanom. Their variation entails raw papaya, khanom jeen, pickled cabbage and num ya pla pon (grounded fish curry). In other words, it’s like you’re eating somtum and khanom jeen curry at once.
There is a similarity between pad Thai and somtum Thai
Both are appropriations of regional cuisine by—and probably for—Bangkokians whose palates are, supposedly, more refined. The idea of eating juice made from raw fermented fish may sound repulsive to some, so it was replaced by (num pla) fish sauce in Bangkok. Num tarn peep(palm sugar) was injected to add the sweetness that central Thais usually crave. Pad Thai, which evolved from Chinese noodles, was appropriated in pretty much the same way. Both dishes share the same ingredients: salted dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and a sprinkling of sugar.
Somtum was traditionally a main dish but centralization made it a starter or a side
Papaya salad was considered a staple for Isaan people, and it was simply eaten with sticky rice and grilled chicken. When somtum arrived in Bangkok, where the sumrub food culture—a single meal composed of a variety of dishes that combine different textures and flavors—greatly influence how people eat, the Isaan dish soon became a side dish along with many other northeastern delicacies like larb and spicy soup. Even now in Isaan, you would rarely see people eat only somtum with sticky rice.
It’s impossible to standardize Somtum
Somtum is considered a very personal dish in Isaan—each family has its own preference and recipe. So you cannot really pinpoint the proper way to make the delicacy. Most papaya salads served in somtum shops, even in the northeast, are made to please diners, and it’s quite normal for eateries in small villages to allow customers to prepare the dish themselves. And because of the many variations surrounding the dish, somtum cannot be reduced to a single recipe. The definition of somtum has broadened over the years and is still open to interpretation. Technically, somtum doesn’t have to be made from raw papaya; it can be made with any sour or unripe fruits or vegetables, such as unripe bananas, mayom (super sour berry) and kraton (santol). So, just like Phed Phed which has somtum taling pling and somtum strawberry, anyone can come up with their own recipe for somtum.
Top 3 best Place to eat Somtum in Bangkok
- Phed Phed
Vibe: Phed Phed is not your typical Isaan eatery. The space takes on an unassuming Japanese café-inspired vibe, decorated with blue floor tiles, potted plants and white marble top tables.
Food: As the name suggests (it translates to “spicy, spicy” in Thai), the somtum here packs on the heat with eight chilis as the standard (you can of course ask for more or less chili). There are about 20 different somtum variations, ranging from the classic northeastern-style somtum Lao and somtum tua (string bean somtum) to seasonal creations like somtum strawberry and somtum taling pling (bilimbi fruit).
- Somtum Der
Vibe: The blond wood-heavy dining room features chic urban influences and pop cultural elements from the Isaan countryside. The first floor houses the somtum bar, where chefs pound together fresh ingredients in massive kroks, while the mezzanine offers a more private dining area.
Food: Khon Kaen-style papaya salad with salty accents, and a slight acidity and sweetness. Worth a try is the somtum sua Sakon Nakhon, which comes with heaps of kratin beans. Balance the somtum spice with heat-light dishes like marinated grilled pork served with jaew.
- Khrok Mai Thao Lao
Vibe: Located outside of city limits, this somtum eatery is set within a rustic shack, giving diners an experience that can’t really be duplicated in Bangkok.
Food: Ubonratchathani cuisine takes the lead so expect somtum with strong plara (a seasoning produced by fermenting fish with toasted rice) flavors. The eatery also serves delicacies whipped up with foraged exotic ingredients like bee larvae, mae peng (flying ants), ant roe and kai pum (an algae-like plant) to appease adventurous gourmands.
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