Vibe: Phed Phed is not your typical Isaan eatery. The space takes on an unassuming Japanese café-inspired vibe, decorated with blue floor tiles, potted plants and white marble top tables.
Food: As the name suggests (it translates to “spicy, spicy” in Thai), the somtum here packs on the heat with eight chilis as the standard (you can of course ask for more or less chili). There are about 20 different somtum variations, ranging from the classic northeastern-style somtum Lao and somtum tua (string bean somtum) to seasonal creations like somtum strawberry and somtum taling pling (bilimbi fruit).
Vibe: The blond wood-heavy dining room features chic urban influences and pop cultural elements from the Isaan countryside. The first floor houses the somtum bar, where chefs pound together fresh ingredients in massive kroks, while the mezzanine offers a more private dining area.
Food: Khon Kaen-style papaya salad with salty accents, and a slight acidity and sweetness. Worth a try is the somtum sua Sakon Nakhon, which comes with heaps of kratin beans. Balance the somtum spice with heat-light dishes like marinated grilled pork served with jaew.
Vibe: Located outside of city limits, this somtum eatery is set within a rustic shack, giving diners an experience that can’t really be duplicated in Bangkok.
Food: Ubonratchathani cuisine takes the lead so expect somtum with strong plara (a seasoning produced by fermenting fish with toasted rice) flavors. The eatery also serves delicacies whipped up with foraged exotic ingredients like bee larvae, mae peng (flying ants), ant roe and kai pum (an algae-like plant) to appease adventurous gourmands.
Vibe: The Somtum Nua at Central Embassy is a more elegant and more hygienic branch (at least from what we see) of the famous somtum eatery in Siam Square. The space comes alive with potted plants and an art-splattered wall.
Food: Somtum Nua is the ideal spot if you like Bangkok-style papaya salad. Try the tum sading, a sweet variation that comes with fermented fish sauce and nutty kratin seeds, and is served with khanom jeen and pork crackling.
Vibe: Petchaburi Road is lined with hole-inthe-wall Isaan eateries that all look the same, but Jae Goy stands out for the crowd it packs. Expect a true street food experience, but don’t count on getting five-star hotel service.
Food: The menu is as thick as an encyclopedia, and includes selections ranging from northeastern fare to typical Thai street food. If you love strong-flavored plara, go for the boldly flavored somtum sua pu pla ra. This dish goes best with their grilled pork jowl and Isaan hotpot.
Vibe: This simple somtum parlor, set in the famous Or Tor Kor market, is a fuss-free eatery with rustic décor and simple outdoor seating.
Food: The menu was put together by Soodjai Rodcheewa, who was named champion in a national somtum competition. Expect bold-flavored somtum with well-rounded pla ra tastes. Pair this salad with the restaurant’s famed grilled chicken.
Vibe: Usually filled with the lively chatter of office workers, Sabsaded’s casual, laidback atmosphere is heightened by mismatching furniture and unassuming décor.
Food: The somtum is bold and spicy, and liberally mixed with plara to please lovers of Isaan fare. If you are new to the odorous seasoning and want something milder, we suggest going for one of the simpler variations like somtum Thai or somtum khai khem (somtum with cured salted egg).
Vibe: This eatery is one of the many branches of Saep Classic, the country’s famous somtum chain. We particularly love this outlet for its cleanliness and easygoing vibe. Plus, a somtum break in between bouts of shopping is a real treat.
Food: Those unfamiliar with fermented fish sauce will be glad to know that the somtum here is seasoned to appeal to their uneducated palates. Try the mildly sweet somtum sua pu pla ra (papaya salad with fermented fish sauce, salted cured crab and rice noodle) to start. Pair it with their crispy-skin grilled chicken for a truly amazing meal.
A brief history of somtum
No one can pinpoint when exactly the nation’s beloved dish appeared in Thai culinary history.
According to food historians, it is widely believed that the somtum we know today was first introduced as an adaptation of tumsom, a spicy and sour salad that’s long rooted in the northeastern (Isaan) culture. Tumsom was made by pounding sour (som means “sour” in the Isaan dialect) vegetables or fruits such as mango, pineapple or tamarind together with savory condiments and ingredients.
The papaya-based tumsom, or tum bak hoong in Isaan, is likely what inspired the creation of somtum.
Respected food expert Nidda Hongwiwat mentions many theories explaining how tum bak hoong became a national sensation in her book Krua Thai Khon Thai (Thai Kitchen, Thai People). One theory proposes that the dish was brought to the central region by traders, and was adjusted for the local palate with the addition of palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. Another theory expounds that tumsom may have been popularized during the reign of King Rama V, who was known for his "casual visits" to his people all over the country. Some of his courtiers may have tried the dish during one of these visits, loved it and brought the recipe back to the royal court. Tum bak hoong, according to Hongwiwat, was adapted by one of King Rama V’s royal consorts, Saisavali Bhiromya—who was praised for her skill of adapting local food into royal cuisine—into kao mun som tum, a dish consisting of coconut boiled rice, shredded beef, chicken curry, tamarind paste and papaya salad. The dish evolved over the years and was combined with many ingredients until it became the somtum we know today.
Read more about somtum
We spoke with somtum expert and Phed Phed owner, Nattaphong Saehu, to learn more about the fiery dish.
What’s in the krok?
The Isaan-born restauranteur reveals his quest to conquer the world with papaya salad.