This is it, this is the dish that finally made Natasha crave spicy food. Sure, she liked some foods to have a bit of heat to them. As she’s told me numerous times, it wasn’t until she tried Ethiopian food that she decided that there was something tasty enough to put up with the pain of spicy food. Even then, she’d ask for dishes to be toned down a bit. This fear of spicy foods even made her forgo what may have been her favorite food in Singapore: chili crab. So while in Thailand for the first time, we knew that she’d have an interesting time.
We did our research and found a place that was supposed to serve up a pretty mean somtam (also sometimes spelled somtum) salad called Somtam Nua. Apparently, lots of other folks had done some research too and we were greeted by a 45 minute wait. This was probably the first time we had seen a line for people in Thailand (something we’d gotten quite accustomed to in Singapore and Malaysia), but it seemed to bode well since we seemed like the only tourists in line.
For a while, somtam salads have been one of the staple dishes for Natasha and me, something we’d always go for in the local Thai restaurants in the US. Somtam is a pretty interesting dish, basically unripe green papaya that’s smashed with some garlic, tomatoes, green beans, fish sauce, chilies, and limes. It’s a pretty simple dish that has a wonderful flavor profile. Served cold or at room temperature, it’s crunchy, tangy, savory, and spicy. The unripe papaya tastes more like a vegetable than a fruit and is a wonderful conduit for the salty-sweet-spicy dressing that comes along with the salad.
Somtam Nua had many different versions of somtam. We ended up going for the one with pork rinds, noodles, and shrimp. Like many places in Thailand, Somtam Nua didn’t ask how spicy we wanted our dish to be, they just made it the way they thought was right. I’m glad they did. The balance between the slight chewiness of the noodles and the crispness of the papaya was amazing. Add to that the nice (albeit slightly soggy) pork rinds and juicy cherry tomatoes, with some crunchy peanuts and oodles of chilies and pieces of garlic and we were in heaven. Natasha started sweating almost immediately, but that didn’t stop her. She devoured the salad with gusto, only pausing once to ask me to check her lips for blisters from the heat (she really thought that the salad was eating away the skin of her lips!).
While we were at Somtam Nua, we decided we’d have to get at least a few other of their specialities. Somtam salad (and Somtam Nua) is from the Isaan region of Thailand, found in the north east part of the country near the border with Laos. Two other common foods from that region (and two favorites of ours) are larb and fermented sausage. Larb is a pretty common dish in most Thai restaurants in the US, typically using pork, chicken, or duck as the main ingredient. Basically, larb is another salad in which minced or small pieces of meat are first cooked and then tossed with rice powder, lime juice, garlic, shallots, mint, fish sauce, and chilies. We had the pork larb at Somtam Nua, which was quite nice. There was nothing terribly special about the larb here, but it was certainly tasty and a solid example.
Next, we had the fermented sausage, sometimes called Isaan sausage in those restaurants that serve it in the US (like our favorite Thai restaurant in San Francisco, Chaaba Thai as well as our favorite Thai restaurant in San Diego, Sab-E-Lee). Fermented sausage is made out of pork, garlic, rice, and often contains some thai herbs mixed into it. The sausage is then fermented to give it a slightly sour taste and then grilled over an open flame, giving a nice crispy smokiness to the casing. Besides somtam salad, this sausage is one of the dishes we almost always get when we go out to eat Thai food. Often served with lime wedges and pieces of fresh ginger that you pop into your mouth along with a piece of the sausage (and for those brave souls some fresh Thai chilies), this is everything I love about sausage with a decidedly Asian flair. Truly magical. The sausage at Somtam Nua didn’t disappoint either. Crispy, flavorful, and a wonderful texture to the meat. I’d come back for the sausage, even if nothing else were good here (which thankfully wasn’t the case).
All in all, Somtam Nua was a great place to come to, even despite the 45 minute wait. We’ll be back!
**Update, we went back, nearly a year later, twice. The line was gone, both times, and the Som Tom was a lot sweeter than we remembered. We found that as long as we asked for the Som Tom to be spicy, it was excellent. The chicken wings are now my favorite thing here though