January 29, 2014: Cooking Nok Style on Koh Lanta, Part III: ส้มตำ and แผ่นไทย
Tom Sum, or Green Papaya Salad
This tangy salad made with shredded unripe papaya is served throughout Southeast Asia. In the 90s there was an award-winning French/Vietnamese film called The Scent of Green Papaya; by then, the dish was known the world over. There are dozens of variations. Nok’s version included carrots, tomato, garlic, hot chilies, a yard long bean (cut into pieces), limes, palm sugar, prawns (per my request), fish sauce, and roasted nuts. She assured me that “you can make it with any fruit – apples, pineapples, or any unripe soft fruit or ripe hard ones.” Her pomelo version is a very popular dish at her restaurant.
Tom Sum (Som Tam in Laos) in Thailand often includes peanuts (Tom Sum Thai), which is the internationally renowned rendition, but similar salads, infinitely varied, are found throughout the region. The popularity of the dish lies in its medley of five major flavors – salty, sour, sweet, spicy hot, and savory, with sour being predominant (tom sum — S̄̂mtả– means “pounded sour”). Nok’s ingredients are typical, but dried shrimp, crabs, pork, chicken, and other local vegetables and herbs might be added to the mortar as well. The pounding, such as it is, is crucial to the success of the dish. Nok’s method utilizes a spoon as well, cleverly diverting the potent fumes of the garlic and chilies. This is not so much a recipe as a technique. Nok highly recommends a simple hand-held grater to julienne the green papaya and carrots.
Palm sugar in Thailand is made from the sugar palm, but any of the palm or coconut sugars from the region can be used in the dish; if you can’t find palm sugar or jaggery (a crystalized sugar made from the a palm molasses; I wrote about the Sri Lankan version 7 years ago on this blog), use brown sugar.
In Nok’s very warm kitchen, her palm sugar was a thick liquid. It gives a caramel-like sweetness to the dish. Some cookbook authors recommend honey as a substitute, but I think a light brown sugar is closer in taste.
Assemble your ingredients (see text above). Nok first grates half of a green papaya and half of a very large carrot. She then makes a paste of the garlic and chilies in her Thai mortar, using a big spoon to divert the fumes. The long beans are then added and pounded a little – just enough to bruise them, but not crush them. A tablespoon of palm sugar and 3 tablespoons of fish sauce and the juice of ½ lime are added and mixed in well. The tomatoes and all the vegetables are added, tossing while running the pestle down the inside walls of the mortar, firmly but without crushing the vegetables.
In the meantime, she puts a tiny amount of water in a pan, brings it to a boil, and adds the peeled prawns, cooking them for about 3 minutes, until just done.
A handful of roasted nuts and the prawns are added and the salad is tossed one last time and served. We added our seaweed to it at home.
Nok’s restaurant and her kitchen are both minuscule but they are spotlessly clean and very well organized. Though southern Thailand is heavily Muslim, Nok is Buddhist; she has a spirit house behind the bar where they prepare delicious, fresh-squeezed fruit juices, smoothies, and shakes. Like most chefs, she has her mise-en-place indeed in place before she begins.
Nok explained to me that there are two basic types of Pad Thai that she prepares and that we would be making both – stuffed and stir-fried. The stuffed one is simply the stir-fried one served in a thin omelet. I realize that you can go online and find numerous recipes for this classic dish, with specific amounts for the ingredients and clear instructions, but that’s not really why anyone reads a blog, anyway, is it? Full disclosure: I seem to have lost the second two pages of my notes from my Pad Thai lessons. Fortunately, I have the ingredient list and my photos (which are my major note-takings anyway). I do have a few things written down that she told me: “Don’t cook any of the ingredients too long” and “You can use rice noodles or glass [cellophane or bean curd] noodles. And many vegetables.” She became animated as she rattled off possible ingredients: “Almost every vegetable! Sprouts – but from green [mung] beans, not soybeans, cabbage, purple cabbage, carrots – for color. Color is very important on the plate. Scallions. And pickled turnip! Or is it radish? [It is.] Pressed tofu, not the silky one. And tamarind sauce. Can you get it in the States?” Fish sauce. Sugar. And,for garnish, fried onions, deep fried Thai chilies. And ground nuts.
We gathered my goodies, I hopped on the back of her scooter, and she drove me back to the house. Like Charmaine Solomon 40 years ago, “All in all, I have seldom spent so edifying an afternoon.” Thanks a million, Nok!
Nok Style is located on Klong Nin Beach on Koh Lanta Island in Southern Thailand. Tell her I sent you.