November 14, 2014

Learning from the Locals - Som Tum from a motorcycle kitchen

How To Prepare Green Papaya Salad

Via my Twitterfeed (Wander_World) I found an interesting little piece from Huffington Post on "7 Street-Food Eats Not to Miss on Your Next Visit to Bangkok". Thanks to Keith Jenkins for re-posting so I found it, and to Anna's Friends  for finding and posting - this post about Thailand made me look back and fondly remember some of the things I love about the country.  

Yes, Thailand, the country in South East Asia where Bangkok is the capital, I am not mixing up Taiwan and Thailand like people in general often do, the same way they mix up Sweden and Switzerland, I really mean Thailand. Just like Taiwan a food heaven, but another type of food heaven. 

It's all garlic
Seeing the post made me relive, in my memory, many of the wonderful things I have seen and experienced when I have been in the country; And with Som Tum, or Som Tam as it's also called, on the top list I can remember the flavours, sense the aroma of the fish sauce and the crushed garlic in the air, I can remember the wonderful feeling of sitting on the roadside, munching on a delicious and very spicy Green Papaya Salad, som tum salad. 

I ate green papaya salad many times, full of garlic and chilies, flavours that suits my palate very well - someone who has problem with garlic or spices will not want to be close to me, garlic is a staple in my house, not only because it is tasty, and, I believe, very healthy, but also because it helps against mosquitoes, or so I believe. 

The green papaya salad, sometimes so spicy that you want to cry, is a wonderful mix between sweet and sour, spicy and smooth - and I could eat it every week at home, every second day when I travel. 

I had it in Bangkok, I had it in small towns, but I never quite had it the way I had it in Chiang Mai, a city in Northern Thailand, the largest one. I had been for a few days already, after having arrived from Bangkok on the night train, when I in the middle of the day in October another year, another life, was out walking around, getting to know the city. In Thailand I never get hungry, there is always so much to taste, so much to sample that my stomach never is empty, but I was starting to feel like I wanted to eat something - and that's when I saw her. Lek was her name I learnt later - and I saw her and her kitchen that was mounted onto a motorcycle. She had parked on the roadside, and a small line had started to form. Curious as I am, I of course had to have a look and see what was going on. 

It turned out that Lek was making Som Tum, the green papaya salad that I already knew I loved. She served it with chicken on the side if you liked, a common way of serving it in Thailand.  

I decided to wait, too, and try the papaya salad, and as food has always been my passion, ever since before I could walk, I studied closely what Lek was doing and how she prepared the salad, hoping I could learn from her. 

It didn't take long until she caught on and realised what I was doing, and there, without a common vocabulary - Lek spoke very little English and my Thai is non-existing - she started to explain to me what was going on, simply by showing. Step by step, she used a big wooden mortar to crush the garlic and the chilies, mixing them with the fish sauce, adding the limes, a pinch of brown sugar, and all the other ingredients she used, as well as - of course - the green papaya, all while working it with the mortar and pestle, to get the flavours to really mix. 

It was heavenly. 

Cupboards are overrated
And not only did I learn a lot from Lek, when the last customer had been served, Lek gestured to me, and before I knew it, I was in charge of the kitchen. Now, I didn't have to serve any customers, but I was watching over the motorcycle kitchen while Lek ran some errands. That's something to be proud of, Lek had such trust in me that she let me in charge of what's her mean of income. It is one of the proudest moments for me, and one I will always remember - and for that, Som Tum salad is even more important to me, and a food I will eat again and again, even just to remember. 

Since then I have made salads inspired by Lek many times. Not necessarily the papaya salad, green - unripe - papaya is sometimes hard to get by, and those who know me know I try and cook as sustainable as possible, most of the time - and papaya has to be transported a long way in most cases. What I have found is that in Europe, you can replace the green papaya with white cabbage - full of vitamin C, firm enough, and very inexpensive much of the year; A perfect vegetable to experiment with. On it's own not very exciting, but with spices and herbs and sauces, a vegetable that changes character and can become a feast. 

I have a lot to thank my travels for. 

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More about Thailand and Chiang Mai




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