Making Som Tam in a Bangkok Alley

Sathorn Road in Bangkok

The main thoroughfare that our hotel was tucked away from.

For our first of three planned visits to Bangkok, Mike and I decided to stay in the Sathorn district. We booked a hotel within walking distance to the Myanmar embassy so that (you guessed it) we could get our visas. Our home for three days was tucked inside a residential area with narrow winding streets and small alleys. Along our walk to the main thoroughfare, we passed small food stalls mostly selling grilled fish and chicken.

One day en route to lunch, we passed a woman making som tam, or green papaya salad. We got hooked on it the first time we tried it in Phuket. It’s spicy, savory and not fried like so much Asian food. After walking five paces past her stall, we stopped and turned around. There were two women ahead of us in line. A lot of smiles were exchanged among us, as is the norm in Thailand.

I had a feeling the vendor didn’t speak English. So when it was our turn, I held up two fingers and said “som tam.” She picked up a couple chilies to ask how many, and Mike chose two for his. Deftly, she started tossing in a little of this and two scoops of that. Mike took video while I watched her mix all the ingredients with a mortar, pestle and large spoon like a pro. She must have seen me staring, mesmerized by how well she worked the ingredients in the mortar.

After she finished Mike’s som tam, she used gestures to ask me if I wanted to try making mine. I had a feeling that’s what she was offering, but I didn’t want to just assume in case I was mistaken. After one offer, she continued getting my dish ready. Then she stepped aside, pointed to her spot behind the stall and gestured for me to go there. Now there was no mistaking what she was trying to say. I excitedly made my way around and took over as sous chef. Watch the video to see how it turned out.


What I love about this experience is that despite language barriers, this friendly Thai woman offered me a priceless experience. I doubt this would have happened if we were staying in a more touristic area. When we left the stall, I noticed a few other locals had gathered around to watch. They were all smiles. And for the vendor, I said as many khob khun ka as possible (“thank you” in Thai). We walked away with lunch and a simple interaction that I’ll treasure.


8 responses to “Making Som Tam in a Bangkok Alley

  1. How wonderful- your senses will always remind you how delicious it looked, you can just sense that savory smell and wow! that taste and texture of som tam! I love Thai food even though it can be super spicy. Its flavor simply dances on my tongue… hmmmm!

    • You’re going to be dreaming of Thai food in your sleep now haha Amazing how they make it so uniformly spicy, huh? Som tam is my favorite Thai dish, though tom kha goong (coconut milk & prawn soup) comes really close.

  2. We were a bit nervous about Thailand because we had heard that the influx of tourists had perhaps left the local population rather jaded. So we were stoked to find that even in a city like Bangkok, if you make an effort to stray off the well-worn tourist trail, you can find people who are so warm and friendly. We never received impromptu cooking classes, but we did stumble across a lot of tucked away food vendors where we had great meals and great company!

    • What’s interesting is that this street vendor is in a community where there are a lot of expats. I get the feeling they just walk past her every day. She was probably happy that we stopped and were so interested in her food. If you’re not afraid to try something new or interact with someone who can’t speak English, you can have a really cool experience.

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