Som tam is more than a Thai salad - it's a trial by fire.
Journalist Marina O'Loughlin commented that, "I had one in Bangkok that was so fiery I almost had an out-of-body experience", and fellow blogger Hollow Legs' verdict on a proper som tam was that, "It should be face-crunchingly spicy".
That probably makes som tam, a wondrous spicy green papaya salad, sound like a bad thing, but it's not.
I guess the closest analogy for me is when you're standing right next to the speaker at a gig played by your favourite band in the world (for me right now this would be Chicago band Tortoise).
At the end you're left dazed and reeling, with white spots flashing in your eyes and a pounding ache in your ears, but the pain is spiked with the sharpest, purest, giddy pleasure.
Maybe we're all just masochists.
Talking of pounding, "som tam" actually means "sour pound", as it's made in a pestle and mortar - you mash away to blend the ingredients and, between each pestle thwack, you tweak according to taste - a bit more sugar here, a dash more fish sauce there.
The ingredients are relatively fluid - some versions contain tiny crabs, others dried shrimps, but taste, specifically the balance of tastes, is vital here - som tam is a stellar example of a dish comprising the four main tastes of Thai cuisine: sour (lime), sweet (sugar), salt (nam pla), and hot (chilli - scads of it).
But remember that, as this salad is made according to your tastes, if you really want to ramp up the salty fish sauce and tone down the chilli, it's entirely up to you. And serve with (sticky) rice and some saucy pork to soften the delicious blow.
Whatever makes you happy.
A note on the papaya:
Green ie unripe papayas are notoriously hard to find even in Asian and Oriental stores. And when you find them, they can be heinously expensive. A good substitute is the green ie unripe mango (like I used this time around), or even a sharp apple like the Granny Smith.
You could also get yourself down to the Senses of Thailand festival at Selfridges starting today until 30 July, where amongst other Thai delights, they will actually have a som tam street food stall.
My Som Tam recipe on Channel 4 Food
(originally written to accompany Gordon's Great Escape to Thailand)
The beautiful knife in the pictures is a Type 301 Porsche Chinese Cleaver which was given to me by Chroma Knives - 'tis surely a knife of wonder - see www.chromaknives.co.uk
Tortoise can be found at www.facebook.com/TRTSband
Just a note on Som Tam variations. You can also use coarsely shredded cucumber - Thais call it Tam Taeng (Cucumber Pound). The cooling cucumber instantaneously relieves you of the chilli heat. A more urban take of Som Tam includes finely sliced cabbage+grated carrot. It's pretty much a Thai interpretation of a coeslaw ^_^
The coleslaw and cabbage sounds good too - I do a Burmese 'slaw which is similar.
@Lizzie - Confession - cucumber makes me burp so I don't like to eat it :P
Yeah, the Chroma knives rock - the handle seems weird at first but fits really well in your hand. And soooo sharp.
Can I have a tape of Tortoise please?
Tape? TAPE? Were you born in the 40s?
@Nicky - Wooo - awesome :)