Like many of the world’s most loved dishes, the origins of som tum are shrouded in mystery. Most food historians believe the savory salad originated in Laos due to its rich history in the historic Isaan region, which encompasses areas of northeastern Thailand and borders Laos. The classic Thai recipe calls for spicy Thai chilies balanced by palm sugar, garlic, shrimp, fish sauce, peanuts, limes, cherry tomatoes, green beans, and green papaya.

The term “som tum” is a combination of two Isaan words translating to “tart flavor” and “to pound,” reflecting the first step in the salad’s preparation in which a mortar and pestle is used to ground several of the ingredients into a tart salad dressing. The dressing is mixed with the remaining ingredients and topped with roasted peanuts for an added salty crunch. The final product is a salad that is simultaneously salty, sweet, spicy, sour, and bitter—a flavor combination that defines Thai cuisine.

How the meal is prepared varies depending on the region, but most pair this popular Thai staple with sticky rice. For those new to som tum, it’s recommended that you pay attention to the number of chilis included in your salad as they are notoriously spicy!

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