Som Tam Ma Muang Boo Maa – Mango and Blue Crab Salad

Unripened green mangoes are one of the most common things you will see sold in Thailand. They vary in taste and texture depending on the time they are harvested but are usually sour and crunchy. They are used widely in Som Tam as a substitute for papaya and their face mangling sourness lends them favourably towards the spicy, salty flavours used here.

If you were to make this at home and can’t find unripe mango, I suggest using carrots, squash, hard cucumber, or generally anything crunchy.

One of the best things I’ve learned in preparing this is how they are cut to give the optimum size and texture for the salad.

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As you can see in the pictures, you take a knife and thwack it in a uniform direction, this creates the long thin strands across the length of the fruit. Then you shave the mango away from you into a bowl (If we were doing this properly we would use a big pestle, but I’m yet to purchase one) and repeat until you are left with the mango stone.

I always just assumed you could grate the fruit to get the same results but you really need the thickness to create that desirable crunch.

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Next we added fresh red onions, celery leaves, coriander, fish sauce, chilli flakes, sugar, and last but not least, roasted rice powder. This is one of the surprise ingredients that puzzled me for so long in Thailand. There was a strange grainy substance in my chilli sauce that added a weird smokey flavour and a glutinous thickness that I just couldnt work out. I’ve never seen it on sale in the UK but it is easily made by roasting or dry frying rice until golden brown, then ground up with a pestle and mortar. It is especially used in combination with grilled meats.

The hardest thing about using these mangoes is there varying degrees of sourness. As everything has to be in perfect balance, you can’t use the same amount of chilli and sugar for one that you can for another. There is a constant intuition required with making this food that needs testing at all stages, its hard to learn how much fish sauce is right, cos that stuff can be strong. I guess less is always more.

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One of the biggest perks of being by the sea is that we managed to buy two of these amazingly blue crabs from the market for 80 baht each. That is about £1.50 a crab. Before I would have been so excited to boil the crabs for a few minutes and spend an hour or so slowly devouring them. I’m not sure why it amazed me so much, but here they regularly just eat them raw, so that’s what we did.

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Ree went about dissecting them, disassembling the creatures into smaller pieces and scooping the white meat into the salad.

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Unlike a cooked crab, the meat doesn’t pull out so easily but the freshness is just insane. Ideally, still cold, the juices are salty and sweet, and the meat is soft and creamy with just a slight resistance in the bite that assures you of its meatiness.

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With no crab crackers at hand the only way to eat the legs is to pop them in your mouth and squeeze the meat out using your teeth.

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The crab and mango is an awesome combination. Fresh fish loves sourness. To me, crab will always be one of my favourite things to eat because it is slow. It is satisfying to have to work for your food, maybe some sort of caveman connection is triggered, the same way ripping chicken wings with hands and teeth is more satisfying than a knife cut breast.

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ข้าวเหนียว + ส้มตำปลาร้า – Khao niao and Som Tam Pla Ra – Isaan starter pack

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Khao Niao – Sticky Rice. 

Since being in Thailand I have missed bread. Soft, stodgy, comforting bread. Bread is like a blanket for me and Thailand just hasn’t got its head around that yet. (At least not affordably) So what is a poor English man to do when he needs the loving embrace of carbohydrates in a dense block of no fuss finger food. Khao Niao (literally ‘Rice sticky’).

Eaten with almost every Isaan dish, sticky rice is traditionally torn off in chunks with your hand, rolled into grape sized balls, and dunked into the watery juices of your main dish. Served hot or cold depending on what is available, it is a perfect soaker upperer.

To make it, the special variety of glutinous rice is soaked for 3 hours and then steamed in a bamboo contraption that looks like a big ol’ fancy hat until it is cooked. I think for around 20 minutes. Generally you just cook it until it looks or tastes done.

Som Tam Pla Ra – Papaya salad with fermented fish

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Papaya salad. The starter dish for anyone wanting an initiation into Isaan food. A perfect example of the divine balance of 5 flavours that this cuisine is built around:

  • Salty (Kem)
  • Sweet (Wann)
  • Spicy (Peht)
  • Sour (Pliaow)
  • Umami (I’m pretty sure there’s no word for it but we’ll just say its the Pla Ra)

*Bitterness (Comm) should also get an honourable mention but I will talk about this in a later post.

Som Tam is a dish prepared all over Thailand, with its mainstream Thai variant using fish sauce, dried shrimp, and nuts in substitution for the strong Pla Ra flavour which is present in the original North Eastern dish. I believe the original to be much better due to its deeper flavour and its tendency to not be so sweet.

It is prepared using two techniques which I find fascinating, first the Papaya is shredded using a knife tapped length ways along the peeled fruit then shaved off into slivers. I’m sure you could get similar results with a coarse grater but this is much more fun. Secondly the mixing of the salad is done in a huge pestle and mortar named a Tam, because of the sound it makes, hence Som Tam. All other ingredients are expertly smashed and folded into eachother in record time. I am confident that when I first attempt to make it things may get slightly messy.


So what is in Som Tam Pla Ra? 

  • Shredded Papaya
  • Green beans
  • Tomato
  • Chilli
  • Garlic
  • Lime
  • Palm Sugar
  • Pla Ra
  • Fish sauce

IMG_3649 (2)This is your basic artillery, and of course there are as many variations as you can imagine. Add in any animal, vegetable, or mineral you see fit and as long as the general flavour base is the same you’ve still got Som Tam. It’s all about the balance. You will regularly order this from a street stall and then before being given the final dish, a spoon will be thrust into your hand for you to taste the sauce. More lime? More Chilli? OK mai?

The more popular version than this which you hear uttered constantly on any street corner is ‘Som Tam Boo Pla Ra’. Boo being crabs, tiny crabs which are lightly pickled to preserve and chopped up into recognisable chunks of crab carcass, randomly poking beady eyes a midst your Papaya strands. These taste amazing and it is oddly satisfying to crush the sweet meat from within the shell using only your teeth. However, I seem to have developed some form of allergy to raw shellfish which results in my lips expanding to gargantuan proportions, so I tend to avoid it.

This dish will probably be the first Isaan dish you try and it is incredibly healthy. Good carbohydrates from the Papaya, a huge dose of Vitamin-C from the Chili, magical properties of the fermented fish juice, and vegetables, good old fashioned vegetables.

This is not a delicate salad in a western sense, these are not delicate flavours. These are big, nose watering, tongue tingling, all consuming, stop talking to your friends because you’ve fallen in love with the meaty headiness of fermented fish flavours. You will need tissues, you will need water, you will need to be within close proximity to a toilet the following day (but your delicate stomach will steadily acclimatise).

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Here’s a picture of the King looking cheeky.