You didn’t cross the ocean to eat a salad? Get off your snobby foodie horse. Do what you gotta to be somewhat less of a namby-pamby about Thai street food burning your tongue off. And maybe don’t go too far from a toilet in the morning.
It only takes a single stinky rice patty crab to yank a papaya salad out of the soulless doldrums of contrived tiki [is authentic Tiki conceivable?] or trashy swim-up bar fare. This crab then drops “Som Tam” culturo-geographically in a multi-chromatic pile on a beat-up plank wood picnic table under a tin roof in rural Thailand. Dark-blue grey shell, floppy double-jointed crawl-enabling appendages. Until it splats and pulps in a stone mortar resembling an upside-down stone beehive. The pestle to this stone bowl looks like a billy club or a staff in the grip of the neighborhood Som Tam wizard.
A peeled bright-green papaya flat in her left palm, a curved rusty steel scimitar supposedly moonlighting as a kitchen implement raised up in her right. She’s about forty, a near-round central Thai face and a slight but persistent smile. Hair left short to the ears and greying hardly with a blue-black flannel, sleeves rolled, over a pink jersey. She’s a great mom and if one were to mispronounce her nickname just-so-easily (who’d do that?) you’d be calling her a drunk. She’s making that salad you didn’t cross the ocean to eat.
Dozens of parallel scimitar chops at the length of the papaya; she rotates it with her left while the right thwacks away. Tenses at the wrist and a little above. Flip the scimitar 90º and slice perpendicular to those lengthwise chops. She shaves off a pile of little sour green papaya matchsticks.
Her papaya salad mis-en-place is set. The platter of papaya matchsticks lands next to smaller bowls of long green beans, not-too-juicy tomatoes and limes from the short tree six feet to her right. Cups and tins hold garlic cloves in their purple-streaked peels, peanuts sparsely roasted until a couple have started to blacken, caramel brown sour tamarind juice, dried red chilis, fish sauce…
The list continues and despite any correlates to dark arts there is a mathematical method to Som Tam sorcery, a procedure to the pestle work. It’s not alchemy – painfully fresh raw produce and heavyweight natural flavors. But every salad salesperson has a formula to their cart cooking –it starts with dried peppers and garlic cloves pulverized in the bottom of the mortar.
Next are tiny clipped curves of red fuzz, about a centimeter long. The decapod crustaceans present a stark textural semblance to pocket lint. These itty shrimp might belong in a fake aquarium the size of a cassette tape.
In fact, there’s a meandering mental walkabout – bear with this a moment – connecting these comically small salty garnishes to non-dairy creamer. Those I grew up around talk coffee like it’s both a universal and a universe; Thais gabble about papaya salad similarly – as if Som Tam were equally ubiquitous but maybe less of a convulsion.
Som Tam is, however, equally stylable – cut to fit the Thai and chained to culture just as strongly as your single-origin aeropress cup. Tiny shrimp or tiny shrimp-less? How many dried, firey Thai peppers tossed in like they’re teaspoons of sugar in your mug? How many actual teaspoons of sugar? Or, more customarily, how many heaping scoops?
After the first couple plates and a little tweaking or crying your eyes out from spice, one can join the caucus on how to make it just-so: conjure up a triangle with sour, spicy and sweet each in their own corner. Muster the know-how to gabble around where you fall in the triangle of Som Tam preference. For any dish, Thais combine words for “sweet,” “spicy,” “salty,” “bitter” and “sour.” Where the papaya-stumped outsider might shelve Som Tam parlance as tedium, bear with your Thai meal-mates. One Thai will call the dish one flavor, another Thai will call it another. Combine as needed – think Bingo or Connect-Four for a discourse on flavor. To help English-speakers get at this Thai flavor “literacy” of sorts, that particular way of talking taste, there’s already an example in most supermarkets: sweet-and-sour sauce. Thais say “Priow-waan.”
How’s the burn, the face-puckering woah or the tooth-paining sweetness of that orange, red and muted-lime pile? Conventional salad dressing now just seems a little imprudent. The neighborhood Som Tam wizard might take offense seeing that Caesar and iceberg.