Som Tum or Thai Spicy Papaya Salad sure is a world-renowned delicacy. Even those who haven’t made their way to Thailand know Som Tum and might have tried it somewhere else in the world. As for travelers who’ve tried the real deal in Thailand, they usually finish the dish craving for more. What surprised us, though, is that only one version of Som Tum seems to make it to most tables. In reality, Som Tum comes in at least 5 different versions, varying in main ingredients, staple condiments, and spiciness.
So don’t just scratch the surface of one of Thailand’s national dishes. Discover the fiery variety of Som Tum and tick off your to-eat list box by box.
The one and only universally known version of Som Tum written about earlier. Tum Thai is sweet, spicy, and has peanuts which give the dish a woody smell. The dish is only mildly tangy because it doesn’t contain crab or pickled fish — which makes for an understandable reason why it’s foreigners’ go-to version of Som Tum. For a little flavor and texture twist, add salted egg to Tum Thai and you have Tum Thai Khai Kem (Spicy Papaya Salad with Salted Egg).
If you want to go a half step up the ‘local’ food scale, ask for Tum Thai Sai Pu (Spicy Papaya Salad with Salted Crab). The crab’s unique scent and taste will add to the dish in a mouthwatering way.
Tum Pu (Spicy Papaya Salad with Salted Crab)
Not to be confused with Tum Thai Sai Pu, Tum Pu is Som Tum with Crab. The salted crabs are mostly rice field crabs which are marinated in salt for 3-5 days and boiled. Some restaurants offer salted blue crabs which are more expensive. Tum Pu is less sweet than Tum Thai and doesn’t contain peanuts. In case you don’t like the sweet Tum Thai but aren’t keen on chewing the salted crabs, you can still get Tum Thai Sai Pu or Tum Pu just to savor the aroma.
Tum Lao (Lao-Style Papaya Salad)
The influences of Lao culinary culture (Laos is Thailand’s northern and northeastern neighbor) in Tum Lao are clear, hence the name. This version of Som Tum is salty and very spicy, with little to no sugar. The dish contains pickled fish paste — an Isaan (northeastern Thailand) trademark.
Tum Sua (Spicy Papaya Salad with Rice Vermicelli)
Tum Sua is Tum Lao with fermented rice vermicelli (Kanom Jeen) and only a little bit of papaya salad for the crunchiness. Prerequisite to the dish profile is Pla Ra (pickled fish paste). The rice vermicelli absorbs the tanginess of the Pla Ra paste and makes for a chewy texture.
Tum Korat (Thai Spicy Papaya Salad with Pickled Fish)
Tum Korat is Tum Thai with pickled fish paste. Korat is a local dub for Nakhon Ratchasima Province and since it’s a gateway to Isaan or Northeastern Thailand, Tum Korat initially found itself in an identity crisis between the central Tum Thai and the Isaan Tum Lao. Decisions, decisions… In the end, Tum Korat opted for combining its double identities, hence the name. People from other Isaan provinces might call the dish ‘Tum Pasom’ (literally Mixed Papaya Salad).
Tum Khao Pode (Thai Thai Corn Salad)
Tum Kao Pode replaces sliced green papaya with sweet corn. The dish is sweet and not very spicy when you compare it to other versions of Som Tum. It also goes well with salted egg, so add some for a salty and chewy texture.
Tum Tang (Thai Spicy Cucumber Salad)
Similar to Tum Khao Pode, Tum Tang replaces the main ingredient with sliced cucumber. The dish doesn’t contain peanuts and is sometimes mixed with Pla Ra. Just like other Som Tum dishes, salted egg will add to the already delicious spice-fused dish.