SOM TAM COMES IN MANY SHAPES AND STYLES… ALL OF WHICH WILL EVENTUALLY COMPEL THEIR SUBJECTS TO SUCCUMB TO INEVITABLE ADDICTION
The other day as I watched again, sneering, yet another TV documentary made in the frantic, nation-wide hunt for the next revolutionary diet that is going to save America from drowning in its own fat — the Atkins, the keto, the 5:2, the Paleo, the HCG, the Zone, the Jenny fucking Craig, you name it — I reached down to my bag of kettle-cooked Texas BBQ potato chips with a grin before I glanced at the clock in wrenching gasps. Holy mother of god it’s past 9 o’clock?! the feeding window has closed on my 16:8 intermittent fasting diet!
We all do it. We all do it. Twitching and turning in an endless cycle of struggles in order to stay in the balance between emotional sanity and the general shape of a socially acceptable humanoid. So much deliciousness, so little fat cell allowance. It’s almost as integral a part of the First World Problems as knowing how not to lose it when asking “What do you mean there’s no wi-fi?” at a beachside cafe on a Caribbean island. I get it.
Having said that, I have to admit my general confusion at America’s difficulty in meeting such task, the final switch from consuming overly processed foods to fresh produce or simply just freshly prepared foods. I feel this way because I think deep down, I know the answer to this question. Deep down, I know how to save us all.
America just has to eat as good as A Third World country.
Look, I think we have grown so privileged, so involved with exhausting the last possible way to pair caviar with fried wagyu steaks or stuffing lobsters into a pig that we have, perhaps irreversibly, forgotten how to make poor foods taste good. Not poor foods as in fast foods, but cooking with cheaper ingredients such as vegetables that is a major part of the diet in less privileged countries where meats are considered a luxury, where eating vegetables is not a choice, but a necessity, and as a result, where they taste really, really, really good, because they have to.
Take Thailand for example, where they have taken a virtually fat-free salad to the brim of an art form — som tam, or better known as Thai green papaya salad. Som tam comes in many shapes and styles, depending on the region, ranging from mild and friendly to deeply funky and challenging to the foreign tongue, all of which will eventually compel their subjects to succumb to inevitable addiction. Consider som tam Thai, the focus of our current interest, as the gateway drug.
Without the use of deeply fermented crabs or fishes like its other peers, som tam Thai is as friendly to the untrained tongues as it is delicious. A mixture of ruptured chilis and garlics, bruised tomatoes and green beans with thinly shredded green papaya, and an acutely savory, sweet and tangy dressing, all pounded under the gentle urgency of a wooden mallet, ushering them onto the way to becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps its greatest wisdom is standing against the western practice of keeping the vegetables as un-wilted and perky as humanly possible in a salad, knowing that the partial breaching of their exterior defenses allows the exchange and absorbance of flavors to deepen. Practically fat-free but incredibly robust, a celebration between a spectrum of textures, a push for the limit of human sensory, burning, salty, sweet, crunchy, sour, som tam Thai has boldly gone where no American vegetables have gone before. The only thing standing in our way is perhaps that its main ingredient, green papaya, is somewhat of a tropical monopoly. But please rejoice in knowing that it works just as beautifully with Granny Smith apples that are more abundant to us than we know what to do with.
So people, put down your kale salad and eat this one. Feel alive again. And maybe once in awhile, go get some fried chicken. Just not a whole bucket. You see. It’s not that complicated.
- 2 tbsp (32 grams) seedless tamarind pulp
- 3 tbsp boiling water
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 2 tbsp dried shrimps (see note *)
- 5.3 oz (150 grams) extra fine haricot verts, or fresh green beans if unavailable
- 2 medium-size Granny Smith apples
- 2 cloves of garlics, peeled
- 2 Thai red chili
- 8 cherry tomatoes
- PREPARE DRESSING: In a blender or the tall cup that comes with immersion blender, soak the seedless tamarind pulp with 3 tbsp of boiling water for 10 minutes until softened (Meanwhile, you can prepare Step Two). Once softened, add fish sauce, dark brown sugar, and lime juice (reserve the lime rinds for later), blend until the mixture is extremely smooth. The dressing is enough for two salads. If you'd like, you can also make a larger batch and keep in an air-tight jar in the fridge until needed.
- Saute dried shrimps with 2 tsp of canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until lightly browned, set aside. (If you don't mind raw beans, you can skip the next step. But I like to take the raw edge off of the haricot verts). Wash and cut the haricot verts into 2 1/2" segments. Add 1/4 cup of water to a shallow skillet and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, add the haricot verts, cover the pot, and cook for about 1 minute until cooked. Shock in iced water until completely cooled down, set aside.
- Peel the Granny Smith apples, then slice each sides into very thin slices, then cut again into very thin strips. If you want to keep then from oxidizing, you can submerge them in salted water. With a large mortar, add garlics, Thai red chili, and the reserved lime rinds (I used lemon because I didn't have enough lime), pound the garlics and remove the skins, and continue pounding until the ingredients are smashed to small pieces (but not ground). Add the dried shrimps and pound again, not to grind it but just to release their flavors. Add the cherry tomatoes and pound ruptured and broken. Add the haricot verts and pound each beans are cracked and bruised. Finally, add the apple strips (drained well if previous soaked) and 3 1/2 tbsp of the dressing, and mix well *(I had to transfer into a large bowl because my mortar wasn't big enough). The salad should taste quite heavily seasoned and robust.
- Som Tam usually has crushed roasted peanuts in them. I'm not a big fan. But you can do that if you want to. Serve the salad with steamed sticky rice or just as is as I do.
* Dried shrimps can be found in almost every Chinese grocery stores or Chinatown. Nowadays they can be easily sourced online as well. Keep them in a zip-lock bag in the freezer and they last an eternity.