Som Tam Nua on Siam Square Soi 5 is a casual and trendy dining spot that has risen to fame serving up tasty, foreigner-friendly papaya salad and other Issan-region dishes. Hidden deep down on one of the alleyways leading away from Siam BTS station, the search for Som Tam Nua is a fun prelude to a tasty meal, and, at times, the queues of locals trailing out the door testify to its reputation. Located in Siam Square, the main fashion hub of the city, there are a whole range of fashion stalls and interesting shops surrounding the restaurant.
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Papaya salad – or som tam – is a mainstay of Thai cuisine and is sweet and spicy in equal measure. Originally from the northeast region of Thailand called Issan, this healthy and low-cost dish can be found on the menu of the top restaurants across the city, as well as at street-side vendors. There are many variations of this dish, but ‘Thai-style’ generally includes shredded, unripe papaya that is smashed together with chilli, tomato, lime and peanuts. Other varieties might include baby crab, or for the real traditionalists, fermented fish sauce.
Som Tam Nua is a bistro-type restaurant, tightly packed with tables already prepared with cutlery and condiments, ready for the hungry hoardes that descend on this ridiculously popular place. Depending on the time of day, you will be eating with different clientele; rub elbows with neatly dressed office ladies at lunchtime or visit in the evening and see where teenagers like to hang out. One thing is for sure; this place is never empty. One down-side of the restaurant is the long-waiting times that have to be endured, but this is a consequence of its popularity. There is seating on two floors and still there are crowds queuing outside around dinnertime.
There are four papaya salads to choose from but, personally speaking, I always go for ‘som tam Thai’ (75 baht). It is an intense mix of lime and chilli, with the sweet and spicy flavours intermingling from the first bite of the fresh papaya and crunchy peanuts while chunks of tomato bring some respite to your taste buds. Another classic dish is sliced, barbecued pork (84 baht) that comes with dipping sauces – both made from chilli. Som Tam Nua serves pork with only a thin rind of fat, not pork fat with a thin slice of meat, like at some other restaurants. The staple accompaniment to all these strong flavours is a basket of sticky rice that should be ripped into chunks and dipped in the juices. The restaurant is also known for its deep-fried chicken (130baht), which is cooked with sesame seeds for a distinctive taste.
It must be said that the papaya salad here is sweeter and less spicy than at other places around town, perhaps catering to foreigners’ taste buds. Even though you will find more traditional som tam elsewhere, at 75 baht it is excellent value considering that the ingredients are fresh, of high quality and that both the dining area and the kitchen are exceedingly clean. Owing to its growing popularity with tourists, most staff members have a working knowledge of English and can help with simple explanations of the menu.
Thai dishes such as pad Thai and tom yam soup might be better known abroad, but neither are eaten as regularly in Thailand as papaya salad, and Som Tam Nua is a great place to give it a try surrounded by an interesting mix of customers in a pleasant, clean air-conditioned environment. The sound of ‘pok, pok, pok’ as the pestle hits the mortar, mixing all those lovely flavours together is one of my favourite sounds and whenever I hear it I know ‘This is Thailand’.
Som Tam Nua
- Opening Hours: 10:45 a.m.-21.30 p.m.
- Address: 392/14 Siam Square Soi 5, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok
- Tel: +66 (0) 22 51 4880