“You have to taste…” Penn
My friend Penn is from Thailand and ran a Thai restaurant in Asheville for several years. I jumped at the chance when she graciously offered to introduce me to Thai cooking at her home. When I arrived, several of her friends (also accomplished Thai cooks) were already assembling ingredients around a large island counter in the kitchen. They paused amidst their piles of chiles, garlic, and cilantro and eyed me. “Is she eating with us?” they asked. Penn nodded, yes. Immediately, half the chiles were swept aside and they went back to chopping.
I learned a lot from Penn and her friends about the collaborative nature of cooking and the mutability of measurement. Not only did they reduce the number of chiles, but after they finished chopping and pounding, they all tasted the mixture to assess the balance of flavors. One cook thought it should be sweeter, another more salty, and a third squeezed in more lime juice. Finally, they were all satisfied, and Penn turned to me and said, “You have to taste.”
Penn also taught me about improvisation and substitution when it came to ingredients. We were making Som Tumm–a spicy green papaya salad often served in Thai restaurants–but Penn explained that she couldn’t get the green papaya in winter, so she was using carrots. In fact, many vegetables and fruits can be used to make this salad.
The salad is traditionally served with Jasmine sticky rice, but at the table personal preference ruled. Some diners scooped up the salad with bok choi leaves, some ate it with balls of sticky rice, some swirled it with noodles, and others mixed everything together. You can’t go wrong.
Tumm is a Thai cooking technique meaning grinding, pounding, or pureeing. I met my first Thai mortar and pestle at Penn’s house and immediately went to our local Asian food store to buy one. Then I bought a second, larger one. They are big and heavy, made of stone. The size is important because all the ingredients for Thai spice pastes, dressings, and Namm Prikk (“chile water,” or sauce) are pounded together in the mortar. Ingredients are prepped beforehand–garlic chopped, spices toasted and ground, herbs minced, chiles soaked and chopped.–and added to the mortar in a precise order. Each new ingredient is added only after the previous ingredient is pounded and blended into the paste. Pounding is an up and down motion, with frequent rotating of the mortar to ensure even blending.
I love using my mortar and pestles. I like the aromas released by pounding and the way the flavor evolves as each new ingredient is blended in. Tumm can be accomplished in a blender or food processor more quickly and easily; maybe it even tastes just as good. But when I pound the chiles and garlic together by hand, I think of Penn and her group of laughing friends and their generosity.
Som Tumm Green Papaya Salad
I call this Green Papaya Salad even though I most often make it with green mango, carrot, or sweet potato. Thai chef Su-Mei Yu writes that the original northeastern Thai name, tumm som, translates as “pounded spicy” –a dish of seasonal vegetables pounded with seasonings. What you are looking for is a slightly sweet flavor and crunchy texture. Allow one to one and one-half cups coarsely grated or finely diced vegetable or fruit per serving.
Ingredients (choose from the following): green Mexican papaya, half-ripe mango, raw sweet potato, jicama, carrot, cabbage, or lightly steamed green beans; 6 cherry tomatoes (Penn prefers cherry tomatoes for their slightly sour taste), 1 tart green plum or nectarine or 2 tomatillos, small bunch arugula
Peel, seed, and coarsely grate the fruit or vegetables to make 5 to 6 cups (if using apple, put the grated or finely diced fruit into a solution of fresh lemon or lime juice and water to prevent discoloration). Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Cut the plum into thin slivers. Chop the arugula leaves. Toss these ingredients together in a large bowl.
Dressing: 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1/4 tsp coarse salt, 2 to 4 minced serrano or bird chiles (seeded), 1 diced shallot, 2 chopped cherry tomatoes, 2 Tbs dry-roast peanuts, 1 to 2 Tbs Thai fish sauce, 4 Tbs fresh lime juice, pinch sugar (or more to taste)
Pounding method: Put the garlic and salt in a large mortar and pound to make a smooth paste. Add the chiles and pound lightly to crush. Add the shallot and pound again lightly. Add the tomatoes and slightly crush. Add the peanuts and pound again lightly, Stir in the fish sauce (add it little by little, to taste), and lime juice. Stir in sugar and taste for balance. It should taste spicy, sour, salty, and sweet…in that order.
Pour the dressing over the salad and mix well. Garnish with a handful chopped mint and cilantro leaves and more chopped peanuts. Serve with lettuce, bok choi, or cabbage leaves for scooping.
Notes: There are many versions of this salad. Some are made by pounding all of the ingredients together in the mortar before adding the fish sauce and lime juice. Others are made by simply whisking the dressing together and pouring it over the shredded vegetables. Increasing the number of chiles turns sum tomm into more of a salsa or chutney.
Cherry tomatoes and tomatillos may be popped whole into freezer bags and stored frozen to use in salads like this.