This is a funky, briny twist on a classic dish from Southeast Asia you’ll want to seek out a few special ingredients to make.
Here’s a classic northern Thai salad that is fairly well known. But what you may not know is that there are different versions, not just one. One of the most unusual – and also my favorite – is this one, though it packs a flavor punch which might be an acquired taste for some. You should definitely try it, however.
In Thailand when you order som tum from a street or market stall, all the ingredients are muddled fresh right in front of you, in a traditional clay mortar using a wooden pestle. They’re gently bruised, rather than pounded, and the sound this makes is distinctive and rather like drumming. The process is interactive too – the idea is, you tell them how many chilies you want (two? five? ten?) and then taste as they mix your som tum, letting them know if you want it more sour, spicy or fish-saucy. They’ll adjust the flavor balance to your individual preference and you should feel free to do that with this recipe as well.
Here, you’ve got the standard green papaya, snake beans, and cherry tomatoes but also some salted crab and acacia seeds together with a pungent dressing based on fermented anchovy sauce (which is a bit like shrimp paste, only stronger). The crabs are small crabs from rice paddy fields and they’re fermented whole in salted water. In Thailand, cooks use the salty preserving brine as a seasoning sauce in their cooking, so nothing gets wasted.
Thai Green Papaya Salad with Salted Field Crab (Som Tum Pla Ra)
For the Tamarind Water:
- 3 ½ ounces tamarind pulp with the seeds; not tamarind puree
For the Salad:
- 1 garlic clove sliced
- 1 tablespoon unsalted roasted peanuts
- 4 bird’s eye chiles
- 4 snake yard-long beans, cut into 3 cm lengths
- 2 salted rice field crabs
- 1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar jaggery
- 5 cherry tomatoes cut in half
- 1 teaspoon acacia seeds
- 7 ounces green papaya shredded
- 2 tablespoons Tamarind Water
- ½ tablespoon mam nem fermented anchovy sauce
- juice of ½ lime
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- lime wedges to serve
Make the Tamarind Water:
- While you can buy puréed tamarind, ready to go, the flavor is not that great. Better by far is to make your own and it’s not hard – a block of tamarind pulp is easy to find in Asian grocers and will keep for ages in the refrigerator. Whenever you need some tamarind water just break off a piece of tamarind, soak it briefly in boiling water, work it into a paste and sieve it to get rid of seeds and tough fibers.
- Soak the tamarind pulp in 13 fl oz boiling water. Break it up a little with a whisk, then leave until cool enough to handle. Using your hands, break the mixture up into a rough paste. Pass the mixture through a sieve; you should get about 1½ cups tamarind water.
Make the Salad:
- Using a large mortar and pestle, pound the garlic to a paste. Add the peanuts and chillies and pound until mixed with the garlic.
- Now add the snake beans and salted crab, gently pounding while adding the palm sugar, tomatoes, acacia seeds and papaya. Continue gently pounding and mixing with a spoon at the same time.
- Next add the tamarind water, mam nem, lime juice and fish sauce. Lightly pound and mix for a further minute, for all the flavors to infuse.
- Transfer to a bowl and serve straight away with the lime wedges.