Some of the requests I’ve been getting in the past several months include, “How do you make X without Y (Y = a cooking apparatus with which X is traditionally prepared)?” Ranked number one among such requests is, “How do you make Thai green papaya salad without a mortar and a pestle?”
On a bad day, I would cringe and wonder, in this day and age when even the most exotic of cooking tools can be purchased online, what would be the excuses for not investing in such tools if the success in creating one’s favorite dishes depends on them? But on a good day, I tell my sometimes impatient, self-righteous self to shut the heck up. True, the tools may be more readily available these days, but there are issues of shipping costs (would anyone care to calculate how much it costs to ship a granite mortar across the country?), storage space, etc. Besides, I am a trouble-shooter by nature. The process of figuring out creative solutions to a problem thrills me to no end. Macgyver is my kitchen patron saint.
Well, guess what. Today’s one of those good days.
Those who have never been to Thailand may not be aware of the fact that what is featured here is only one of the many versions of Som Tam (ส้มตำ)* or Thai green papaya salad (most often transliterated Som Tum which is linguistically messed up or Som Tom which is wrong in multiple levels). This more “friendly,” peanutty version happens to be the most prevalent one outside of Thailand.
Why? Well, it’s less intimidating than some versions that are flavored with the Northeastern-style fermented fresh water fish (ปลาร้า) the smell of which could send the uninitiated running for their mommies. Then there are some versions that are flavored with pickled fresh water crabs (ปูเค็ม) featuring severed and crushed body parts of brined decapod crustaceans peeking through the strands of green papaya as if to say, “Can you put me back together?” (These versions do exist in Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, but people who order them are usually native Thais or non-Thai secret menu seekers.)
I also need to talk about one other thing before going into the recipe. (Please know that I’m not wasting your time with these little tidbits of background information; I actually have a point.) It should be noted that the “Tam” in Som Tam means “to crush” or “to pound” — a verb that is most commonly used when a mortar and a pestle are involved. “Som Tammade without a mortar and a pestle,” therefore, is oxymoronic.
But that’s okay.
You have now entered the geeky area.
*For those who have the smallest semblance of interest in how to properly pronounce the name of this dish in Thai:
The first syllable, Som (ส้ม) has the same vowel quality of the long ô in “dome” or “Rome,” but is of smaller quantity. Say Rome or dome, but reduce the vowel quantity to half its length. Then replace the R and D with S, keeping the shortened vowel in place. That’s how you say it. As for the tone, the closest thing to the proper tone would be to turn it into a verb in the imperative mood and say it as if you’re making a command, “Som!” That should do it.
The second syllable, Tam (ตำ) has the same vowel quality and quantity as the word, “come.” Say “come” in the flattest tone possible. Then replace the “c” in “come” with “t.” That’s exactly the vocalization you’re looking for. For extra authenticity, make your “t” unaspirated/unvoiced. Place the tip of your tongue right behind your front teeth (or, in some cases, denture) and make the “t” sound without shooting out a breath of air between your upper and lower teeth as you would when pronouncing the English “t” (especially in the initial position).
**Some vegetables have been successfully used as substitutes for green papaya which may not be available in all areas of the world. Good candidates would be vegetables that are crisp, mild- and clean-flavored, not prone to oxidation and can hold their shape well. Carrot (as LimeCake has made it here), cabbage, and daikon work really well. In fact, my favorite Som Tam is made of grated carrots. I like even it better than I do the traditional green papaya.