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Monday, March 30, 2009


About somtam

When I first lived in Mahasarakham, six years ago, I befriended a couple of guys who ran a milkbar close to the university campus. If I had nothing else to do of an evening, that's where I'd hang out. There was a restaurant next door. Both had tables in the open. In fact, everything was quite open in both these places. Not much separated them.

One evening there was a horrible (to me) smell coming from the restaurant. 'What is that smell!?' I asked the guys.

'That's barrarh.'

'What is barrarh?'

'Fermented raw fish.'

I discovered that barrarh is one of the ingredients in a very popular dish, somtam or spicy green papaya salad. I had no desire to try this dish but I found it hard to avoid in this area. Another popular dish here is gai yang or BBQ chicken. This is one of my favourite Isaan dishes. The chicken is marinated in local spices before cooking. It doesn't taste like the BBQ chicken we might get back home. Gai yang is usually eaten with khao neeow (sticky rice) and somtam. Every time my friends ate gai yang they ate somtam too. And they would encourage me to try some.

'I don't want barrarh.'

'OK. You can have somtam Thai. Only somtam Isaan has barrarh.'

'What else is in it?' The list included peanuts and prawns to which I am allergic. It also included lots of chilli.

In time I learned how to order a tolerable somtam for myself. 'Somtam Thai, mai sai goong, mai sai tooah, pet nit noy.' That's somtam without barrarh, prawns or peanuts and only a little chilli. I even used to order it when I was eating alone. I was making a commitment to participating in Thai culinary culture.

One day I was eating with a group of both new and old friends. One of the new friends enquired, 'John, can you eat somtam?'

'I eat somtam Thai,' I said.

One of the others butted in, 'No, you eat somtam John.' In other words, as far as they were concerned, what I was eating was not the real thing. I asked myself, 'Why do I eat this stuff? I don't really enjoy it.' So I stopped.

But don't let me influence you. From time to time I meet Westerners who actually enjoy somtam Isaan. Maybe you will too. If you get a chance, give it a try. BTW, Our Japanese visitors seemed to enjoy it.

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