Over the last few weeks Dave and I have developed what I would call a deep -- and hopefully abiding -- relationship with a guy who spends most of every day sporting protective eyewear.
We're not talking about a welder here (although some of the materials he handles can be as dangerous as a blowtorch). The safety goggles-wearing dude in question deals in food, not metal.
Much as we had our Fruit Guy in Istanbul, we now have our Somtam Guy in Chiang Mai. He can be found putting pestle to mortar most days of the week behind Warorot market, in a busy alley that runs alongside the impossible-to-miss Guan Yu temple.
We're not the only fans of this papaya pounder. Arrive within an hour either side of lunch and you could be looking at a wait of 30 to 45 minutes. The idle is more than justified by his product. Grab a seat at the "counter" attached to the front of his cart or at one of his red tables and cool your heels with an order of gai yang (grilled chicken) from the stall just down the alley or a cool Chinese sweet soup from the ladies at the cart adjacent his.
On offer here: somtam Tai (made with fish sauce and dried shrimp), somtam Isaan (sour and spicy, with pickled crab), somtam pbuu bplaa raa (sweetish, with pickled crab and super-fermented fish sauce), and somtam bpuu (sweetish but just with pickled crab). He also whips up cucumber somtam, dtam mamuang (green mango salad), and sup nawmai (Isaan-style fermented bamboo salad).
A perfect dtam mamuang (green mango salad), with cha om and wild pepper leaves
While his somtam Tai (our favorite; neither Dave nor I do pickled crab) is excellent, it's this guy's dtam mamuang and sup nawmai that really knock us dead. For the former he peels and shreds the green mango to order, pounding it with dried chilies, sugar, fish sauce, a bit of lime juice and a whiff of bplaa raa. Served topped with peanuts, the salad bears the barest suggestion of sweetness. It's drier than your average pounded salad -- great for wrapping in the the wild pepper leaves he serves alongside.
(Attention to detail here -- each salad comes with a different assortment of fresh leaves and vegetables.)
The fermented bamboo salad is simply out of this world. We adore sup nawmai but let's face it -- the dish can be overpowered by fermented bamboo's funkiness. But this guy ferments his own, and it's a notch above the rest, retaining much pre-pickle bamboo crunchiness and sweetness. The funkiness is a welcome back note in this sup nawmai, a twangy response to a bit of lime-y sourness, toatsed rice nuttiness, and as much heat as you can stand. Eat it with the accompanying mint leaves.
Sup nawmai (fermented bamboo salad)
We've only known our Somtam Guy for three weeks, but we saw each other almost every day. Dave and I knew that our relationship had taken a turn for the serious when our Somtam Guy stopped asking how hot and/or sour we wanted our order. Five chilies in the mango salad, four in the sup nawmai.
We think this might just be a long-term thing.
Somtam guy. From 11am till about 3 or 4, almost every day (his days off are unpredictable). Behind Warorot Market, Gat Luang neighborhood, Chiang Mai. Anything he makes is perfect with an order of grilled chicken from a stall down the lane.