This will come as no surprise to you if you live or have travelled a bit in Thailand but somtam -- probably the mostly widely known Thai dish -- doesn't mean "green papaya salad". This 'salad' is less about ingredients and flavor profile (which vary Isaan to northern Thailand to central Thailand) than about a style of preparation: mixing a 'dressing' of sorts in a mortar and then 'pounding' vegetables and/or fruit into it with the pestle.
Our favorite somtam guy here in Chiang Mai (more on him later) lists 6 or 7 styles/types of somtam on his street cart menu -- three or four made with green papaya, one made with cucumber, another with green mango.
Elsewhere, there's carrot somtam and long bean somtam. There's fruit somtam, which I wrote about several years ago (it's fabulous -- give the recipe a try, here). And now, something I've been seeing more and more around Chiang Mai: corn somtam.
We first tried this tasty Thai way with corn last year at a shop near Chiang Mai's flower and plants nursery area. Since arriving in town over a week ago we've seen at least 3 or 4 mobile vendors selling the stuff, often in combination with grilled chicken. Corn somtam is made with cooked corn kernels and isn't as 'pounded' as the green papaya/mango versions -- exploded kernels do not a tasty corn salad make.
The thing about somtam -- it's so much easier to make than you probably think, and quick to make too, if you're using a main ingredient other than grated or cut papaya or mango. Yes, ideally it's done with a mortar and pestle, but it doesn't have to be. It's the perfect accompaniment to a heavier Thai dish or grilled chicken or pork. Here, it's often eaten on its own, maybe with sticky rice or kanom jeen (fermented rice vermicelli), as a late morning or mid-afternoon snack.
The best part -- it's entirely customizable. If you like it spicy, add more chilies. If you don't have fresh chilies, use dried. Fish sauce or bplaa raa ('super fermented' fish) or another fishy element -- pickled crab in Isaan, sometimes gapi (shrimp past) -- is essential, but lime juice actually isn't (northern Thai-style som tam is spicy and salty, but not lime-y). Soft Thai palm sugar is best, but if brown sugar is all you've got, go for it.
Think of somtam as you would any other salad -- simply a matter of mixing a 'dressing' to taste and throwing in what you like.
I'm not specifying ingredient amounts here because somtam is a personal thing. When I order somtam Tai (with lime juice, fish sauce, and dried shrimp rather than pickled crab or bplaa raa) I specify 'phet priaow' -- spicy and sour. But maybe you like yours sweet, or not so 'phet'.
You might start with 1 Tbsp fish sauce, 1 Tbsp lime juice, and 1 Tbsp sugar. Then taste and adjust to your own palate. Chilies are necessary for this somtam lover, but if you can't stand the heat leave them out; the same goes for garlic. Add dried shrimp if you like, just a tablespoon full or so. Unless you've got primo quality, relatively freshly dried shrimp, soak them in warm water first and rinse to get the salt off. To make your somtam, use a mortar and pestle -- or a bowl and a couple of spoons, plus the side of a knife for smashing some of the ingredients.
And play around with other ingredients such as cucumber (cut into thick matchsticks or wide ribbons), carrots, French beans, jicama etc. If you like, toss in a few cooked fresh shrimp at the end.
I clove garlic (if you like) ... or 2 or 3
chilies - fresh or dried
Palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp dried shrimp (optional) -- soaked in warm water, rinsed and patted dry if not top quality
2 cups cooked corn (barely cooked -- don't use mushy kernels)
a few cherry tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
grated carrot, if you like
a long bean or three, if you like
In a mortar, smash the garlic and chilies a couple times to release their juices (if you're using dried chilies you might cut them in half and then bash them a bit before throwing the garlic in). You don't want a pulpy paste here -- they should retain some shape. If you're not using a mortar, smash the garlic and chilies with side of a knife and throw them in a bowl.
Add fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar -- maybe equal parts to start. Mix it all up, then taste. Add more fish sauce, or lime juice, or sugar, or all three. Remember that the dressing will be diluted by juices from the veggies so make it on the strong-tasting side.
Toss in the shrimp if you're using them, and pound lightly. (Or smush them with the side of a knife and toss them into your salad bowl.) If you're using a mortar, add the tomatoes and bash lightly. No mortar? Squeeze the tomatoes lightly over the bowl the smush them a bit. Throw in the carrots and long beans (cut in 1-inch pieces) and lightly bash them in the dressing. If no mortar, smash the long beans with the side of a knife and throw them in with the carrots, then stir all in the dressing.
Add the corn and mix well. Ever so lightly tap the kernels with your pestle --- or press down lightly on some of the kernels with the spoon you're using to mix.
Serve with rice, or not (this makes a great, light-on-fat lunch).