CulturallyOurs Som Tum Isaan Recipe From Thailand

Authentic Thai Green Papaya Salad – Som Tum

CulturallyOurs Som Tum Isaan Recipe From Thailand

Food has always been and always will be a way for us to connect with our culture, heritage and where we come from. Most of us grew up eating the food of our cultures. It becomes a part of who each of us are. Many of us associate food from our childhood with warm feelings and good memories and it ties us to our families, holding a special and personal value for us. Food from our family often becomes the comfort food we seek as adults because of the memories it holds in our minds.

Our friend Suwanee Lennon of Simply Suwanee, a Thai-American living in the Pacific Northwest is sharing one of her recipes, the famous Thai Green Papaya Salad also known as Som Tum from her home in Isaan, Thailand. For Suwanee, Thai food is a way for her to connect to her roots, her Thai family and her home country even through she now lives so many thousands of miles away from it all.CulturallyOurs Som Tum Isaan Recipe From ThailandFrom Suwanee,

Som Tum or Tum Som is one of those dishes that makes me feel like I am back home in the Issan (Northeastern) region of Thailand.

Thai cuisine has many popular dishes in the West. Dishes like Pad Thai, Drunken Noodles, Tom Yum, Lab and Sticky Rice Mango. To me, if I had to pick just one dish to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Som Tum or Tum Som or Tum Bak Houng or simply papaya salad. The one and only Thai green papaya salad.

Every time I would go back to Thailand, as soon as I arrived at my sister’s house in Bangkok, the first thing my mom would always ask, with such joy and excitement in her voice,  “What do you want to eat?!” Never mind the , “How was your trip?” “Do you want to rest?”  No, eating is more important than anything else.  I would always answer, “Som Tum Lao, Gai Yang, and Kao Neow.” (Green Papaya Salad, Grilled Chicken, and Sticky Rice). The 3 Amigos that represent the complete tangy, spicy, starchy and umami flavors of Isaan food.

When I’m in Thailand most Thais see me and would treat as a foreigner. I’m half Thai-half American. They call me “Farang,” or foreigner eventhough I grew up there for 13 years.

It’s very interesting because when I’m in America, I’m usually known as the “Thai girl”. Strangely enough though, I don’t feel like I belong to one culture more than another. How can I? I’m of both worlds. It’s part of who I am. It’s in my DNA.  Sometimes it bothers me that I’m treated like I don’t belong to either culture.

When it comes to cooking Thai food while being back in Thailand, my family and friends rarely let me cook. I have to fight for my spot in the kitchen. I believe this is because they view me as a foreigner. Who doesn’t know how to cook or eat the very basic and simple food locals eat. Also, I ask too many questions. And take too many pictures that interfere with their meal making time. They get annoyed with me and question my ability to extract tasty flavors the way they like it. So they often times just shoo me away. Over the years, though, I’ve been persistent and pushy enough to earn their trust and, finally, they gave me the task of making Som Tum Isaan. (Papaya Salad). Seeing an opportunity to prove myself as foreigner in my own homeland to my own family, I put my whole heart and soul into making the best Som Tum Isaan that I could ever come up with. And I did. To everyone’s shock and surprise, they all approved of the flavors of my Som Tum Isaan. In fact, every time I have been back since then, my task  has been to make Som Tum Isaan.

My favorite compliment came when my Thai friend in DC asked if I could make Som Tum for a pot luck after church. I did 3 large batches and they were completely gone within minutes. I’m now known as the Farang who can make a killer Som Tum Isaan.

I’ll wear that badge proudly. Not because of my need for acceptance into any certain culture, but because it symbolizes a piece of cultural bridge that allows me to connect the two worlds together.  A white looking Thai girl cooking a very basic poor man’s  dish. No one expected it, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless.CulturallyOurs Som Tum Isaan Recipe From ThailandNow, there are many versions of Som Tum in Thailand.  Each one depending on several factors. The biggest for my family is what’s available around our yard or our cousin’s grocery stall. Next, it’s what region you are from. Som Tum Isaan is very different than central or Northern Thai Som Tum. Finally, it’s  a chef’s personal preference for flavors. Where I grew up, in Surin, we preferred Som Tums that call for one very specific ingredient, Pla Ra or Pla Deak.  It’s a special sauce made from fermented fish, rice bran and salt that has been kept sealed and fermented for months before usage. This is the secret ingredient that keeps the Isaan Som Tum different from the Bangkok Som Tum. If you are brave enough to try the most delicious green Papaya Salad, I encourage you to try out this recipe.

I hope you enjoy a piece of my childhood recipe from Isaan, Thailand.CulturallyOurs Som Tum Isaan Recipe From ThailandThai Som Tum Isaan Recipe (serves 2)


  • 2 Cups Shreded green Papaya, as green and hard as possible. No soft or ripe papaya whatsoever. Peel the skin and shred the white part of the fruit.
  • 2 Garlic whole
  • 1-5 Thai chilis (Adjust according to tolerance, I used only 1 pepper)
  • ½ cup fresh green beans cut about 1 inch long
  • A slice of lime (1 inch long and wide)
  • 1 Thai Eggplant, quartered cut into large chunks (approximately ¼ cup).
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, pick the hardest and youngest looking ones if possible. Cut in halves.
  • 1 Tbsp dried Shrimp
  • 2 Tbsp Shaved palm sugar
  • 2 tsp white granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ Tbsp Tamarind Paste/sauce (recipe on blog) or store bought
  • 2 Tbsp Pra Ra
  • 1 tsp fish Sauce


  1. Pound the garlic, chilis and shaved palm sugar together in a mortar and pestle until both ingredients are coarse.
  2. Add the green beans and Thai eggplantPound together with medium force to crush the green beans just slightly.
  3. Add the shredded papayua, sauces and the rest of the ingredients to the mortar and pestle.
  4. Note for the lime, squeeze the juice into the ingredients in the mortar and pestle and then throw in the rest of the lime chunks in with the rest of the ingredients. The oil from the lime rinds will add a slightly bitter flavor to the dish.
  5. Pound the ingredients together with moderate force in one hand while using large spoon to lightly stir in the ingredients into the mortar and pestle. Do not crush the ingredients into a paste. After a minute or so of pounding, sample a bite and see if you need additional lime juice, sugar or fish sauce.
  6. Set a platter with vegetables of choice on the side,  scoop out the salad onto the platter and serve fresh.

Papaya salad is best had fresh. Leftovers are pretty much unheard of. And recommended side vegetables include Napa cabbage, water spinach, Thai green basil or romaine lettuce.

Thai Papaya salad is best served with Steamed Sticky Rice and a side of grilled or roasted protein like Moo Ping, Gai Yang or Grilled Isaan Sausage.

{Words and photos by Suwanee Lennon, Website: Simply Suwanee, Instagram: @simply.suwanee}

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