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 it 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.
Because som tum originates from Northeastern Thailand, it can typically be found at Isaan -- the name of the region -- restaurants. In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Isaan Station offers six different kinds of som tums to choose from, including papaya salads loaded with salted egg and stringy rice noodles. The menu also consists of a range of yums, too, so you can get your meaty salad fix alongside platters of shredded papaya. In New York City’s East Village, Som Tum Der also specializes in Isaan food and possesses a range of som tums to choose from, including som tum phu pala, a fermented crab papaya salad that is spicy and lip-smacking -- and definitely fragrant with the enticingly fishy smell of salted crab.