Thai Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam)

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Thai Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) is a light, fresh, colorful salad that embodies the flavors of Northeastern Thailand. All of the ingredients are pounded together in a mortar and pestle which helps to develop the sour, savory, and spicy flavors. Once you taste this flavorful dish, it’s easy to see why it’s so well loved!

Green Papaya Salad on a white plate

Like most people who have visited or lived in Thailand, Frank and I have a serious love of Som Tam. We love the spicy green papaya salad itself, but one thing we miss about our years living in Bangkok is the whole experience of the dish. The “pok pok” sound of the wooden pestle hitting the clay mortar is what inspired the name of Andy Ricker’s Thai food empire. Eating the dish is part of a whole Thai dining experience, especially in the Northeastern (Isan) region where the dish is served everywhere – usually alongside Gai Yang and Sticky Rice.

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shredding papaya

Ingredients for this recipe

  • Green papaya – The main thing you need is a green, unripe papaya. See below for how to choose a green papaya. Shred it before using it.
  • Lime juice and fish sauce – These ingredients are essential to authentic Thai green papaya salad for a mix of tart and savory flavor.
  • Palm sugar – This traditional sweetener for som tam has a subtle, caramel flavor that makes it unique. Brown sugar, honey, or even maple syrup would work as a substitute, but start with less than listed in the recipe and slowly increase it.
  • Bird’s Eye Chilis (or “Bird Chilies”) – These tiny red or green chilis are what give the dish its heat. They pack a very spicy punch, so adjust to your spice preference.
  • Garlic – Don’t skip the garlic cloves for authentic savory flavor.
  • Cherry tomatoes – These add moisture, flavor, and color to the dish.
  • Chinese long beans – Chop these into bite-sized lengths and use them raw. Regular green beans work just fine as a substitute.
  • Peanuts – Great for adding crunch.

How to Choose a Green Papaya

To choose a green / unripe papaya for som tam, look for papaya that is a dark, solid green. It should feel very firm to the touch with no blemishes or soft spots. When you peel it, the fruit inside should be pale green without any hint of pink.

a hand holding a Green papaya

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Tools for Making Thai Green Papaya Salad

  • Mortar and pestle – These are the classic tools used to make Som Tum. Not all are equal, and it’s important that the version you use is a clay mortar and a wooden pestle like this one. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can still make this recipe – see below for tips.
  • Julienne Peeler – This ridged peeler is the tool you will need to shred the papaya.
wooden mortar and pestle on a white table

How to Make Som Tam Without a Mortar and Pestle

Don’t have a mortar and pestle? No problem. The mortar and pestle used for making som tam is designed to pound the ingredients just enough that the flavors blend. As long as you keep that in mind, anything that achieves this goal will work. The easiest alternative is to combine the ingredients in a plastic bag and pound them gently with meat tenderizer or rolling pin. A sturdy wooden salad bowl and small flat-bottomed can or jar could also work.

Most important is to gently bruise the papaya so that it can absorb the aromatics and seasoning. The papaya should come out tender but also retain some crunch.

salad on a white plate with a fork

How to Make Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam)

Using a mortar and pestle, add and pound the following ingredients in order. Taste and adjust as you go, increasing the spiciness, sweetness, saltiness, and tart flavor to suit your tastes.

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 to 3 Bird’s Eye Chilis
  • 2 Tablespoons dried shrimp
  • 1 Tablespoon palm sugar
  • ¼ cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
  • 1 cup chopped Chinese long / yardlong beans
  • 5 cherry tomatoes
  • 4 cups shredded green papaya
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce (I prefer Red Boat)
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice
Ingredients for Green Papaya Salad on a grey countertop

Possible Variations

Even in Thailand where all of these ingredients are readily available and classic som tam is as ubiquitous as tuk tuks on Bangkok streets, it’s possible to find hundreds of variations. Here are a few I’ve tasted or made:

  1. Substitute a different fruit / vegetable for the green papaya. Shredded cabbage, carrots, or green mango work well. I’ve even had sweeter fruit-based variations made with ripe tropical fruits.
  2. Add or substitute another vegetable for the beans or tomatoes. While not traditional, zucchini, snow peas, or bell peppers would all be delicious!
  3. Make a vegetarian / vegan version by skipping the dried shrimp and fish sauce. Just be sure to add a pinch of salt along with the lime juice to season the dish.
grinding Thai spices in mortar and pestle

Make ahead and storage

Thai Green Papaya Salad (Som Tum) can be made ahead as written and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Wait and add the peanuts until right before serving so they retain their crunch. Some liquid will gather in the bottom of the bowl as it sits. Just gently stir everything together before serving.

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Green Papaya Salad on a plate
4.34 from 9 votes

Thai Green Papaya Salad Recipe (Som Tam)

Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) is a light, fresh, colorful salad that embodies the flavors of Northeastern Thailand. All of the ingredients are pounded together in a mortar and pestle which helps to develop the sour, savory, and spicy flavors.
Prep: 20 minutes
Total: 20 minutes
Servings: 2

Equipment

  • Mortar and Pestle or Spice Grinder
  • Julienne Peeler

Ingredients 

  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 to 3 Bird’s Eye Chilis (see note)
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled palm sugar, more to taste (see note)
  • ¼ cup peanuts, roasted and unsalted
  • 1 cup chopped Chinese long / yardlong beans 2” / 5cm pieces (sub 10 to 12 regular green beans, chopped)
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 4 heaping cups shredded green papaya (sub shredded cabbage, carrots, or green mango)
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce (I prefer Red Boat)
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice

Instructions 

  • Combine garlic and chilis in a mortar and pestle. Pound until chilis are broken apart and garlic is finely ground.
  • Add palm sugar and pound until sugar starts to dissolve.
  • Add peanuts and pound until broken into small pieces.
  • Add beans and pound a couple times to break them apart.
  • Add tomatoes and green papaya together and pound, focussing on the papaya until the strands all feel tender and look slightly damp.
  • Add fish sauce and lime juice. Use a large spoon or spatula, alternate scooping and turning the ingredients and pounding them with the pestle so that everything gets mixed together. Be sure that you’re scooping up any of the garlic, chilis, and sugar that might be stuck to the bottom.
  • Taste a strand of papaya and add more fish sauce or lime juice, to taste. (If you’d like it a bit more sweet, soak the palm sugar in a tiny bit of hot water to soften it first so that it gets distributed evenly.) Give everything a final mix with the spoon / pestle.
  • Serve immediately!

Notes

Bird’s Eye Chilis – These are REALLY spicy. Even using one makes a pretty spicy dish. I did two when I was living in Bangkok and my spice tolerance was high, but living back in the US now, that stretches the limit of my spice tolerance. Serrano chilis work as a substitute and are generally less spicy. You could even play with a bit of red pepper flakes, adding a bit at a time until you reach your limit. You’ll definitely want some amount of spice in the dish though – it’s the balance of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour that make this so great.
Palm sugar – This has a subtle, caramel flavor that makes it unique. Brown sugar would work as a substitute, but start with less than listed in the recipe and slowly increase it.
Dried Shrimp – The recipe above does not include dried shrimp, but add up to 2 Tbsp of dried shrimp for added savory / seafood flavor with the dried peanuts if you’d like. These can be found in any international / Asian market and are shelf-stable and do not have to be cooked or prepared in any way before using them in this salad.
This is a dish that’s best made in small batches. This is the most I’d recommend making at one time (and serves 2 generously or 4 as a small side), so if making it for a crowd, just repeat the steps for each batch.
For a vegetarian / vegan version, substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce. 

Nutrition

Serving: 1g | Calories: 600kcal | Carbohydrates: 130g | Protein: 28g | Fat: 11g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 4g | Sodium: 605mg | Fiber: 17g | Sugar: 35g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Author: Jess Smith via Inquiring Chef
Cost: $10.00
Calories: 600
Keyword: DIY Thai, easy Thai recipe, Entree Salad, salad recipe, summer
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About Jess Smith

Jess is the recipe creator and photographer at InquiringChef.com. She spent nearly a decade as the Chief Recipe Developer for the award-winning meal planning app Cook Smarts. Her colorful, healthyish recipes have been featured in popular online publications including Parade, Hallmark, and HuffPost.

4.34 from 9 votes (6 ratings without comment)

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16 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Another idea to test out is grinding up the dried shrimp to where its pretty much a powder. I find it spreads that flavor around a little better than the mini shrimp chunks.

    1. That’s so true! That’s what I do with my Yam Som O, and I love that shrimp flavor in every bite without the pieces. Great idea to use that for Som Tam.

  2. Thank you so much for the “Red Boat” – fishsauce hint !

    I already have good ones (Megachef) but ordered immediately some Red Boat bottles via Amazon for testing and learnig 🙂

    Your recipe for the Som Tam is the plain classic and allways good one. I also like to add dried shrimps (gung haeng) and to replace the peanuts with roasted cashews.

      1. 4 stars
        It’s interesting how people have their favorite fish sauce! I personally love Tips Fish Sauce. This recipe looks spot on. I definitely add dried shrimp or grilled chopped shrimp when I make this. Now I need to make it again soon!

    1. Hi Felicia. Try it with soy sauce, Tamari or coconut aminos – any of those will add a great savory richness that the traditional version gets from fish sauce.

  3. Frank
    The bowl to a kitchenaid mixer also works well and you can use a worsterchertshire bottle for the mortar. 😉

    1. That’s such a good idea Albert! You make the best Som Tam, so we know you’re an authority! Hope you guys are well!