Tums might actually be the most well known Thai salads. The word tum translates to “pounded,” which is exactly what happens to the veggies and proteins that make up these salads during their creation, using a traditional Thai mortar and pestle.
An absolute must-try tum dish is the original som tum Thai, which contains a base of unripe papaya slivers that are pounded with dried shrimp, chiles, fish sauce, peanuts, and sugar. It’s a staple food in Northeastern Thailand, where sticky rice is the main carb used to sop up the leftover juices of papaya salad, and pairs beautifully with grilled chicken, meat skewers, and fatty pork neck. It’s also a favorite among fans of Thai food because of how balanced the dish is: it’s crisp, salty, spicy, and nutty, yet also sweet.
Beyond tum Thai, there are plenty of derivatives of papaya salad: tum phoo (with crab), tum kai kaem (with salted eggs), and a personal favorite, tum pala (with deliciously stinky, fermented fish). If papaya isn’t your thing, there is also tum thang, which uses the same method as traditional som tum but swaps out the base of green papaya for cucumber, and tum som oh, which is pounded -- not tossed -- pomelo salad.
Lastly, there’s larb -- pronounced lahb with a short a sound and not ‘larb’ like Aunt May said in Spiderman: Homecoming -- which is a salad consisting of minced meats, fresh herbs, lime, chile, and dry roasted rice. It’s typically made with chicken and pork and is also consumed alongside sticky rice. Larb is special because it’s so herbaceous: expect to find fresh mint leaves, cilantro, and ground dry chiles all in the mix.
Versions that feature sliced meat, as opposed to minced, are called nam tok. Unlike larb, nam toks usually uses beef that has plenty of marbling on it; the fat makes the salad extra juicy, but not overwhelmingly so against the tartness of lime.
If you’ve yet to browse the salad section of any Thai menu, now is an opportunity to explore fresh, fragrant dishes that will change the way you perceive what a salad can be. Noodles and rice dishes are great, but Thai salads are the best kept secret of Thai food.