Green papaya salad is a spicy salad made from shredded unripe papaya. It is of Lao origin but it is also eaten throughout Southeast Asia. Locally known in Cambodia as bok l’hong (Khmer: បុកល្ហុង, pronounced [ɓok lhoŋ]), in Laos as tam som or the more specific name tam maak hoong (Lao: ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ, Lao pronunciation: [tàm.ma᷆ːk.hūŋ]), in Thailand as som tam (Thai: ส้มตำ, pronounced [sôm tam]), and in Vietnam as goi du du. Som tam, the Thai variation, was listed at number 46 on World’s 50 most delicious foods compiled by CNN Go in 2011.
The dish combines the five main tastes of the local cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty, savory fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar. The ingredients are mixed and pounded in a mortar; The general Lao name tam som literally means “pounded sour”, however, the more specific Lao name tam maak hoong literally means “pounded papaya”. In Khmer, the name bok l’hong also means “pounded papaya”. In Thai, the name som tam, (a reversal of the Lao name), literally translates as “sour pounded”. However, other pounded salads in Thailand are consistent with the Lao naming convention in which the word tam (“pounded”) is listed first.
Despite the use of papaya, which one may think of as sweet, this salad is actually savory. When not yet ripe, papaya has a slightly tangy flavor. The texture is crisp and firm, sometimes to the point of crunchiness. It is this that allows the fruit to withstand being beaten in the mortar.
In Laos, green papaya salad is one of the traditional staples of the Lao. Pounded salads in Laos all fall under the parent category of tam som, which may or may not contain green papaya, however, when no specific type of tam som is mentioned, it is generally understood to refer to green papaya salad. For absolute clarity, however, the name tam maak hoong may be used, since this name means “pounded papaya”.
In Thailand, it is customary that a customer ask the preparer to make the dish suited to his or her tastes. To specifically refer to the original style of papaya salad as prepared in Laos or Isan, it is known as ส้มตำลาว or som tam Lao or simply as tam Lao, and the dish as prepared in central Thailand may be referred to as som tam Thai.
Traditionally the local variety of green papaya salad in the streets of Bangkok is very hot due to the addition of a fistfull of chopped hot Bird’s eye chili, however with its rising popularity among tourists, it is often served now not as hot.