Eating/Drinking  •  Epicuriousities

The Somtum that Conquered the World

There is single a dish that brings together all flavors. An explosive dish. A signature of Thailand’s Isan region. The humble somtum is now found all over the world.

July 06, 2017
What would a cosmopolitan city be without its token Isan spot. Thais are travelers, we blend in everywhere—kind of. But everywhere, even in remote provincial towns in Europe, such as Evian or Malvern, one will find a Thai restaurant serving somtum, albeit with carrots and sometimes even apples.
Somtum is the dish that has captured the imagination of chefs and diners around the world. There is not just one version: at the most basic, it can be tum Thai with the inclusion of peanuts and dried shrimp but no fermented fish, or the Isan version of the beloved dish with pla ra, fermented fish paste. An acquired taste, the thick, pungent brew that is standard in this traditional somtum is not complete without salted freshwater mud crab and at least a handful of chillis.

How did such a piquant, regional dish land on the menus of renowned kitchens around the world. How did it become such a hallmark dish of Thai cuisine? Historians hypothesise that it has it origin in Laos. The Laotian version of the papaya salad is all about the fermented fish; in fact, the jus is all pla ra and no nampla, a more mild type of fish sauce. Pungent is the word. Papaya salad can also be found in Thailand’s neighbors of Cambodia and Myanmar, both of whose salads are distinctly flavored, largely because of the different types of fish, local spices, and fermentation techniques.

So how did the Thai Isan somtum become a phenomenon? Admitting our limited knowledge of food anthropology, we would hypothesize that it was about the people. Many years ago, Isan, a vast region with plentiful resources had plundered its forests and its economy fell into poverty. While it has recently been reborn as a burgeoning business hub, over decades of poverty the Isan population, many of Lao descent, found work throughout Thailand and abroad, and their cuisine went with them: somtum, sticky rice, fried chicken, and jaew sauce. Staples of the cuisine. Fiery, fresh, and full of character.
Then there were the food lovers who came to Thailand to study the cuisine, to master it as best they could, then return to their home countries or further afield to share it with others (frequently having to adapt it to local ingredients there). These experts helped bring international notoriety to Thai food and established a precedent that you don’t need to be Thai in order to be a Thai chef, as there is more to Thai food than a simple proclamation of patriotism. Not that it’s easy. Getting under the skin of the country, learning the land and its bounty, understanding the people and way of life in Isan: all this takes passion. And time. David Thompson’s Nahm changed everything, and the chefs today that cook Thai food around the world are connected to him.
As for somtum… one day in Portland Oregon, a small restaurant called Pok Pok opened. With roast chicken the Thai way (a la JP Chicken in Chiang Mai) and some Papaya “pok pok”—an onomatopoeia of the sound of the krok (mortar and pestle) with which the raw papaya and other ingredients are pounded together and therefore a nickname for somtum. Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok was no doubt a trailblazer. Then came Som Saa in London and Uncle Boon’s in NYC. But before these guys brought Thai food into the city spotlight, somtum could already be found at Esarn Kiew in London’s Shepherd’s Bush and at Lao Siam in Belleville in Paris. These restaurants were local affairs from Thai families who had settled in their respective cities, offering homey atmospheres.

It was a new incarnation of these Thai family restaurants that would make somtum the star: an Isan family that changed how we see somtum. For the Laoraowirodge family, it started with the family restaurant Khon Kaen, at a beautiful ranch and villa called Supanniga. Here the recipes of their grandmother would find their way to the modern table. It was a mix of all Thai regions—grandma, after all, was from Trat and had settled in Isan.
In 2012 came Somtum Der. The story goes that, one day in Bangkok whilst reminiscing of home, Oh Laoraowirodge called his mum and said, “I miss somtum.” So his mother, as mothers would do, said “Why don’t you open your own somtum restaurant?” And this was exactly what the family did. In a little shophouse in Silom they opened Somtum Der. Then, shortly after, they opened Supanniga Eat Thai in Thonglor (a project between Thanaruek Laoraowirodge and university friend Tatchai Nakapan. At the end of 2013, Som Tum Der NYC would open to glowing reviews and a star by Peter Wells of the New York Times. In 2014 it would receive a Michelin star.

The thing with somtum is that, to keep it real, it’s “street food”, found on every street corner in Thailand. Somtum Der brought it indoors, gave it air-con, great cocktails, and an atmosphere and let the somtum do the rest. In NY, it is still perennially packed. And rightly so, as the somtum is on point and consistent. When I asked Thanaruek what the secret to great somtum is and what makes a good one he said, “For tum Thai, I love the right combination of flavors that includes in one somtum dish—it should not be too sweet, too sour, too salty, or too spicy. This is a challenge of how to combine all somtum ingredients mixed right together.”

They seem to achieve this at Somtum Der and what we especially love about the NY branch is how you can customize your level of spiciness: 1 chilli to 3, or even 4. This is not an indication of how many chillies go into the krok but rather the level of spiciness, and we all know that Isan somtum is hot (“not spicy” in Isan is probably pretty darn spicy most everywhere else!) That is probably part of the success of Somtum Der too, just the right level of fiery-ness—applied to each of those different types of somtum they offer. But it’s not just the som tum Thai sauce developed by the chef that is so special; the deep fried chicken thigh and the moo/nua rong hai at Somtum Der are also special family-inspired recipes.
Somtum Der is one somtum name that is making its way around the world: branches in Ho Chi Minh City and Beijing opened last year and a Tokyo Somtum Der is opening this September. And despite the different palates of different cultures the favorites at each branch are very similar, including deep-fried chicken thigh, tum Thai kai kem, and moo rong hai der.

Somtum Der is also a popular Pop-Up option: for Phililp Huang’s FW17 presentation of a collection called #isandreams (inspired by Isan and his journey to Sakon Nakhon to work with Indigo), Somtum Der created an ad-hoc somtum station in a loft in Chinatown for a dinner on Jim Thompson pillows (of Isan origin silk and fabric) with guests eating family-style on the floor—all of Somtum Der’s favorite dishes. The somtum was such a hit that it ran out before dinner was over, with guests returning for seconds and even thirds despite the spiciness level. Just this weekend, Somtum Der catered at the South Asian Film Festival at the Lincoln Center.

While this small Bangkok/Isan restaurant spread its wings and traveled around the world, it’s nice to remember that for Thanaruek, what started it all was the need for a taste of his Isan home, first in Bangkok and later NY where his brother was studying at NYU. So like all epic journeys and success stories, it somehow leads back home. After all, home is where the somtum and Isan food come straight from the heart, a dish that (even upon sight) will always remind us of home. It made it’s way from Isan to every street in Thailand and remains a part of our lives even as it spreads to every city in the world. Which is a great thing, because we can’t go very long without it.