Tam som, also often referred to as tam mak hoong, is a green papaya salad which is eaten all over Laos and is one of the most famous Lao dishes.
Tam som is very different to the version of papaya salad eaten in Central Thailand, called som tam, although more similar to the papaya salad eaten in the North Eastern Region of Thailand, known as Isan, which borders Laos and shares a common regional dialect albeit with some notable differences in vocabulary.
Green Papaya Salad Laos Style
Laos papaya salad is made in a pestle and mortar to order, and diners can order it according to their own preference, which is useful for foreign visitors to know as tam som served Laos style is often too spicy and pungent for the typical Western palate. The ingredients of Laos papaya salad can vary according to where you order it, however, it typically includes the following:
- Unripe green papaya shredded into thin sticks
- Birds eye chilli
- Bpadek – a fermented fish paste different to Thai fish sauce and more pungent and salty
- nam pu – fermented crab paste
- Whole garlic cloves
- Globe egg plant sliced into thin strips
The main flavourings are the birds eye chillies, the bpadek and the nam pu. Some visitors to Laos find that the salad is inedible unless they ask the vendor or restaurant to reduce the number of chillies in the salad, and substitute the bpadek and nam pu for Thai fish sauce.
Green Papaya Salad in Thailand
Thailand’s famous som tam salad is believed to have been created in Bangkok during the 1960s and 1970s as a more refined version of the Laos papaya salad eaten by the migrant workers from poorer Thailand’s North Eastern Region, who came to the city in great numbers during this period as Bangkok expanded as a commercial centre. Thai som tam is sweeter and uses lime as a more key ingredient than the original Laos version of the same dish. Thai som tam also uses fish sauce instead of the very strong tasting flavourings of bpadek and nam pu. The toppings on Thai som tam are also an addition to the Laos version of the dish. Thai som tam is generally topped with peanuts and dried shrimp, whilst traditionally Laos papaya salad is not.
Accompaniments to Laos Papaya Salad
Tam som can be eaten on it own own, although it is nearly always served with raw cabbage and green beans to counter the spiciness and acidity of the dish. However, most often Laos papaya salad is eaten with sticky rice and grilled chicken or pork. Most restaurants or street stalls which sell tam som will also sell sticky rice and grilled chicken or pork, and the combination of these food items is one of the most commonly eaten meals in Laos.