Thai people from different parts of the country don’t always agree on everything, but one area that without question pervades all of Thailand is a love for the spicy, salty, sour and sweet flavours of Isaan-style salads.
As a bit of a disclaimer, while these salads are on the whole considered northeastern Thai (Isaan) cuisine, each region has developed distinct ways of preparing them, and it’s probably fair to say that these are just Thai-style salads. Yet we love the loud and often painfully spicy flavours of the northeast, so we’re giving Isaan its due.
By far the most famous of the salads, and arguably Thailand’s signature dish, is som tam. There are many subcategories to som tam, but most of them — and actually most Isaan salads — include loads of fresh chillies and garlic for the spicy, fish sauce for the salty, palm sugar for the sweet, and fresh lime juice for the sour. The most common som tams are made with shredded unripe or green papaya for its fresh, crunchy texture.
Tamarind, gapi (shrimp paste), peanut, dried shrimp, green bean, carrot and tomato are considered universal “take them or leave them” ingredients, but the secret of good som tam is not found in the ingredients but rather in nailing that delicate balance of flavours.
Unless modifying the salad with a fragile ingredient, like fresh fruit or corn, som tam is typically made by pounding the ingredients with a mortar and pestle, and it’s believed to have been made this way for more than 6,000 years (at least that’s what an Isaan native tells us). Som tams are often teamed up with khao niew (sticky rice) and gai yang (grilled chicken), the more quiet flavours of which ease the sharpness of the salad. And a som tam would not be complete without a side of fresh veggies like cabbage, green beans, and tam ba tun (morning glory stems), which are a must for cooling the tongue.
Central Thailand‘s version, som tam Thai — which includes roasted peanuts, dried shrimp and a sweeter taste — is what’s typically served in Thai restaurants all over the world. Isaan-style som tam, however, goes heavy on the spicy and sour and is often made with puu pla raa or pickled crab mixed with a pungent fermented fish sauce along with raw Asian eggplant. True Isaan som tam puu pla raa grins mockingly at the comparatively gentle som tam Thai, and while it might be over the top for some, the extreme spiciness and fishy saltiness of it can be a religious experience for the adventurous.
Make no mistake about it: even when requesting them “phet nit noi” (a little spicy), Isaan salads are usually more runny nose and tear inducing than watching that heart wrenching scene when E.T. finally goes home while chopping up a dozen onions, so be sure to have some tissues handy.
Variations on som tam come in many forms — a handful of examples include tam taeng (substitute cucumber for papaya), tam mamueang (substitute green mango), tam tuewa (substitute string beans), tam baa (substitute bean sprouts and other veggies), tam phonlamai (substitute fresh fruit), and tam khanom jin (throw in some Chinese style vermicelli size rice noodles). Som tam is even finding its way into the fusion laboratories of modern cuisine blending chefs; we’ve given both som tam kim chee and deep fried som tam a try, and found both to be worthy adaptations of the classic.
Som tam is clearly the most popular Isaan salad, but there are many more. If prepared well, my personal favourite not only of Isaan salads but of any Thai dish is muu nam tok or “waterfall pork”, a spicy and tart mingling of grilled pork, mint leaves, scallion, red onion, parsley, basil, finely crushed toasted rice, and the sweet, sour, salty, and spicy base mentioned above, though in nam tok sour surpasses sweet. It can also be done with beef, but I find pork to fit in best with this addictive blend of flavours. Allow me to reiterate: if I were dying tomorrow and had only one dish to choose for my last meal, it would be nam tok. It’s just that good.
Then there’s laap, a fiery but bold salad that features roasted chillies and garlic added to finely chopped chicken, pork or duck, a bit of scallion, and a few mint leaves for a hint of cool. The Isaan specialty laap ped (spicy duck salad) is the source of much upcountry pride, and I’ll never forget the first time I gave it a whirl in Ubon Ratchathani. After years of practice, I can handle some serious spice, but this stuff was so hot I nearly jumped into the Mun River to put out the flames in my mouth.
There are too many Isaan salads to mention here, but deserving honourable mentions are yam talay, which features similar ingredients as those in nam tok but with a mix of shrimp, squid and often bits of lemongrass, and suep naw mai, a mix of pickled bamboo shoots pounded with crushed toasted rice and an addictive spicy-salty-sourness made distinct by the earthiness of the bamboo shoots. And we can’t forget yam woon sen, a delicate glass noodle salad that’s usually served heavy on the onion, parsley and cilantro.
Now that you’ve learned the basics on the fine art of Isaan salads, where should you go in Bangkok to critique them if Udon, Ubon, or Mukhadan aren’t in your plans? Isaan-style street restaurants aren’t hard to find (just look for the mortar and pestle), but stay tuned as we’ll be reporting soon on a specialty joint that whips out 22 different types of som tam-style salads. Hope you like it spicy.
*Sincere thanks to Isaan native and som tam aficionado, Chinnapatt Chongtong, for her help with this post.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 29th May, 2012.