Don’t let ‘somtam’ fall victim to the fast food era
Published on Apr 15, 2005
From now on you’ll have to think twice before ordering a dish of the Isaan papaya salad known as somtam, because the Health Ministry found in a recent survey that most of the somtam sold in department store food courts across Bangkok is contaminated with toxic materials that could cause cancer.
From the dried shrimp, peanuts and fermented crabs (poo dong), to the fermented fish (pla ra), all of the main ingredients of somtam have been found to pose a health hazard. Caesar and rocket salad are having a big laugh at our poor somtam.
It is sad that somtam, which is one of the great wonders of Isaan civilisation, is at risk of being destroyed by the fast food industry. And nobody is doing anything about it. The 130 or so members of Parliament from Isaan, who form the largest political bloc in the country, have yet to say a word about the threat posed to somtam by modern trade and fast food. What will happen to tens of thousands of somtam vendors, should the fast food world prove too strong an adversary?
Incidentally, most MPs from Isaan are members of the Thai Rak Thai party. One can’t help but be curious about why these Thai Rak Thai MPs are so indifferent to the reputation of somtam, a dish created in their vast region. They should form a joint Senate and House Committee on the Protection of Somtam as Isaan’s Greatest Contribution to the Kitchen of the World, with a mandate to restore the glorious image of somtam. Many Thai Rak Thai MPs from Isaan have missed roll call during votes on key pieces of legislation because – you guessed it – they like to hang out at their favourite somtam stalls. When they manage to make their way back to Parliament, they still have papaya in their teeth and sticky rice on their hands.
You have to know how to tell the difference between somtam from Laos and its Thai counterpart. Somtam Lao is the original one, created by the wisdom of the Isaan people. Laotian people might argue that they invented an original flavour. Let’s allow the food historians decide this controversial issue. However, the Isaan people in the Northeast of Thailand and the Laotian people living on the other side of the Mekong River come from the same ethnic stock.
Somtam Thai appeared later, with different ingredients and flavours to suit the tastes of the khon krung and khon muang (Bangkokians and other urban people). Their tiny, delicate tongues cannot cope with the chilli and the smelly essence of pla ra. In fact, khon krung like to look down upon khon ban nok (rural folk) from Isaan because they eat the stinky pla ra. Yet they still cannot resist the temptation of somtam. Their mouths water whenever they see Isaan people eating somtam along the pavements. To answer this urge, khon krung have altered the flavour of somtam by adding dried shrimp and peanuts and leaving out the pla ra to suit their tongues, hence somtam Thai.
More sophisticated food vendors normally have two mortars – one for preparing somtam Lao, the other for somtam Thai. Try the somtam Lao some time. I have never ordered somtam Thai in my life and will never do so. Somtam Thai is a disgrace, an affront to the true human spirit. Somtam Laos represents a revelation, a yearning for the Age of Innocence. After pretentiously eating somtam Thai with their forks, khon krung normally say “aroy jang” (delicious). But Isaan people, using their fingers to eat somtam Lao, exclaim “sap lai!” There is no equivalent of the word “sap” in any other language. Sap lai refers to a state of 100-times more deliciousness. Delicious stops at your tongue. Sap taste sets your tongue ablaze before sending the aroma of the food to the depths of your soul. You can stay healthy throughout your life just by eating somtam Lao every day, given all the wonderful herbs and vegetables.
Let’s take a close look at what the two styles of somtam have to offer.
The ingredients for somtam Lao are half-mature papaya, pla ra, poo dong, tomato, lemon, fish sauce, chilli, garlic, tamarind juice, makok (hogplum), palm sugar and mono sodium glutamate. The food vendor normally puts chilli, garlic and poo dong in the mortar first and then crushes them with a pestle. Then she adds all the other ingredients and mixes them well. Sliced papaya is added last to keep it alive and tingling on your tongue. The finished product is a dish from the gods that will enlighten your imagination. You feel like you want to live for another thousand years. You can at once taste the spices, the sweetness, the sourness and the saltiness – the quartet of flavours – in their extreme forms. This is the wonder of somtam Lao.
Somtam Thai is a plastic version of somtam Lao. Most of the key ingredients are left out, such as the hogplum, pla ra and tamarind juice. Then peanuts and dried shrimp are added up to further change the course of somtam to the point of no return. The result is rather disastrous as far as the Isaan people who are truly into their roots are concerned.
The damage to somtam as a whole has been furthered by the fast food industry, which uses toxic materials to prolong the freshness of the ingredients like dried shrimp and peanuts.
Let’s all help reclaim the glory of somtam Lao by respecting the original ingredients and keeping the original formula alive. Boo and thumbs down to modern trade and fast food courts.