I’m going to Chiang Mai in December, and one of the things I’m most looking forward to is the varieties of Northern somtam. My friends know that I’m an absolute sucker for green papaya salad, which I find it hard not to order in any Thai restaurant, but the mild papaya version we get in the west is just the tip of the Thai somtam iceberg. (I’m not sure how I feel about that metaphor but let’s go with the awesome vision of a somtam iceberg, shall we?) Eating Asia had a great piece a while back on the many types of somtam, where Robyn pointed out that somtam is more of a method of preparation – pounding ingredients into a dressing in a mortar and pestle – than it is a set of ingredients. As luck would have it, I had reason to call upon that knowledge when I was prepping my own somtam last night.

The thing is, first of all, that somtam is dead easy to make. It seems like it would be a faff, but all you need is your main ingredient, some kind of mandoline/mortar and pestle combo, and the basics of a Southeast Asian dressing. I used to make it all the time in New York, where papayas were commonplace, but I haven’t made it in a while because you don’t really see papayas in the shops here. So, when I came across a big papaya in Asda (who knew?) I was spurred to plan a somtam. All was going swimmingly until I cut open my papaya and discovered it was bright pink inside. Sigh. I guess green papaya was too much to hope for. You need unripened papaya for a somtam, not the sweet ripe fruit. Luckily, I knew that somtam need not be limited to the papaya. I’ve made longbean somtam before and this time, I surveyed the fridge and came up with the idea of cucumber and green bean somtam with a touch of smoked elk sausage.

The combination actually worked really well. The green bean gives the somtam some texture and bite, while the cucumber gives freshness to contrast with the pungent and spicy flavours. The elk sausage is obviously optional, but I was thinking of the way that gamier meats like buffalo are common in Southeast Asian cuisine, and of the beef jerky that you sometimes find in Vietnamese papaya salads. Somtam dressing is all about the balance of flavours and these main ingredients created their own balance. Paired with a bowl of sticky rice, this somtam made a perfect summer dinner.

Cucumber and green bean somtam

  • 1 cucumber
  • 200g fine green beans
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp dried shrimp
  • 4 medium green Thai chilies
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 1-2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp lime juice
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 tbsp tamarind water
  • a few slices of elk sausage, beef jerky or similar cured meat (optional)

Note: In an ideal world, you would have a really big mortar and pestle and the whole dish would be made at once. However, if you’re like me and only have a smaller one, then you can do it in parts, removing ingredients to a big bowl as you go along. When everything is in the big bowl, stir with a spoon and gently pound with the pestle to get the flavours interacting.

First pound the garlic cloves in the mortar and pestle, then add the dried shrimp and pound until you have a thick paste.

Chop the chilies into chunks and pound these into the paste. (Obviously, alter the amount of chilies to taste, but remember the sweetness of the dressing and the large amount of vegetables will offset a lot of the heat.) Add the roasted peanuts and pound some more. I like to keep the nuts in fairly large chunks so I put them in after the chilies and shrimp.

Next, add the beans, pound and mix to bash them up fairly well. They’re raw, so you want to pound them a fair bit. (Here’s where you might need to start doing it in batches!) Grate the cucumber into fine strands using a hand mandoline and add to the mortar and pestle. Pound just a little – the cucumber is very soft so don’t overdo it.

Now add the dressing ingredients. Here, you’ll want to start with the smaller amounts and taste as you go. Somtam dressing is a matter of personal preference and balance: add fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice and tamarind water until you feel the levels of salt, sweet, sour and spicy are correct. Make sure that even if you are transferring ingredients to a bigger bowl, you are tasting the dressing with everything else in it. Pound all together briefly.

If you are using meat, now is the moment to slice it into fine strips and gently mix it in. A little goes a long way – this isn’t a meat dish but just a chewy counterpoint to the fresh cucumber.

Serve somtam with sticky rice. This recipe serves 2.

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