A Truely Awesome Esan Meal
Before Bangkok has become a haven for ‘street food’ as we’re now touted to be, we have gone through a long series of food for necessities with some ups and downs in between during the past few decades.
As a follower of all things historic, I came upon a knowledge on the original Bangkok street food while on another assignment on another totally different matter. Bangkok’s original street food was in fact the food for necessity, spawned about two or three decades back when Thailand was moving from agricultural society to a society of business, trade, and services.
You might have heard it all before. The migration of labours, led by people of Esan or Thailand’s Northeast, who was at the time the major workforce when Bangkok was expanding through constructions. Be it the infrastructure, buildings, all things on extensions to house, new businesses, and international influx of trades and commerce. Naturally, these folks needed flavoursome sustenance. And what would be better than the sustenance from home, hence pop-up carts equipped with pestle and mortar, small pots and pan, charcoal griller, and all things necessity to make a wholesome Esan meal.
So, this is how Bangkok’s street food came into being. These carts would appear in front of an alley where people commute on foot, beckoning passersby with the aromatic trails of their skewered meats and the distinct pok-pok-pok sounds when someone placed an order of Som Tam – Esan papaya salad that has now become a ubiquitous dish throughout Thailand.
Being a national dish as it is, Som Tam itself has gone though a series of evolution and innovation. Before, choices used to be limited – Thai Som Tam, meaning a milder version of the salad without the fermented fish or Pla Ra, and Som Tam Lao – meaning the original version of the salad with that Pla Ra and all things. Now, we see Som Tam in various shapes, tastes and forms, some reflecting the original recipes, some showcasing new creative ideas of people who are behind it.
Basically, a plate of Som Tam consists of hand-grated green papaya tossed in a tall and slim clay (and never granite) mortar and wooden pestle. The lighter equipment means the papaya is never meant to be crushed, but only slightly and appropriately bruised to mix well with the sauces which basically consist of fresh green lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar. But the variety depends on the additions – be it for flavours or for textures. For example, the aforementioned fermented fish of Pla Ra can be used as the substitute – or the raison d’ être – for fish sauce. Salted black crabs – Pu Dum – is also another favourite. But then, in recent years, we see wilder and wilder additions – some to twist the original tastes, some enhanced the already strong aromas, some providing another level of textures while also add more layers to the tastes.
Fresh green seeds of Kratin (White Popinac) is now the craze of modern Som Tam, as well as crispy pork skins with its oil rendered through hours of simmering. The seeds of Kratin has a strong, earthy, a bit bitter flavours, while also providing crunches. They add to a Som Tam a fun, cruel twist, a sensation of sadism on a plate. For after eating them all, you will still feel the strong flavours of the seeds still lingering, in your breaths, even in the next day. And that can create a lingering social problems if your day usually includes a lot of talking to other people. 😀
In terms of spiciness, well, this is a personal issue. You might come across a lot of Thai people – born and bred and 100% truly – who avert spiciness, even in the plates meant to be spicy like Som Tam. Yes, Thai foods are generally known for being spicy, but not all plates are meant to be overwhelmingly so. Most of the time, we look for a well-rounded flavour more than being downright and brutally spicy. Som Tam – true to Esan style – can be very very fiery. This applies to native dishes such as Som Tam Pla Ra which, even for most locals, will be a real torture. But for other types of Som Tam – be it Thai or Central style or the varieties to do with milder ingredients such as salted eggs and corn – can be gentle, some rather sweet, and easily eaten.
What is your favourite types of Som Tam? Hope you have one. Or willing to be in on a good run of Som Tam adventure while in town.