Yam sohm choon is a sour green mango salad served with grilled fermented shrimp paste; roughly chopped shallots; sweet pork condiment, deep-fried fluffy grilled catfish and seasoned with fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice and topped with deep-fried dry chilies cut into small pieces.
If you follow Thai movies and TV dramas, you probably remember Sohm Choon, the adorable boy ghost character from the period romance movie Reun Mayura (1997), which was a love story between a beautiful woman and a handsome man living in different periods of time.
Sohm choon is also a dish and, much like the cute ghost, it can manifest itself in different forms: a savory salad, or a sweet cooling dessert.
It is not uncommon in Thai cuisine for dishes that vary in taste or appearance to carry the same name; to avoid confusion, we will refer to the savory version of sohm choon as “sohm choon salad” (yam sohm choon ยำส้มฉุน) and to the sweet version simply as “sohm choom” (ส้มฉุน).
Sohm choon salad (ส้มฉุน) is an ancient Thai dish, a savory salad of sour green mangoes that was popular among both commoners and aristocrats. This dish showcases the understanding of Thai traditional medicine with regard to balancing the elements: during the sweltering summer months as people become lethargic and tired with the heat, the mangoes blossom and come to season. Dressing the sour mangoes with sweet and salty flavors creates an energizing appetizer that improves the desire to eat and strengthen the body.
First, the green mango is peeled and thinly sliced. If the mango is too sour, it is rubbed with salt and rinsed in water, or even soaked in sweet syrup to mellow the tartness. It is then mixed with the other salad ingredients such as pounded dried shrimp, fermented shrimp paste, dry chilies and ground chili powder.
This salad’s appearance is what differentiates the sohm choon salad from yam ma muaang (sour mango salad ยำมะม่วง), in which the mango is shredded. If sun-dried mango is used, the salad is called sohm lim (ส้มลิ้ม).
The dictionary of The Office of the Royal Society defines sohm choon as a ‘salad composed of thinly sliced green unripe mango and dried shrimp, seasoned with fish sauce and sugar’.
The dictionary also cites sohm pen (ส้มแผ่น) and sohm lim (ส้มลิ้ม).
Sohm pen (ส้มแผ่น) is a mango fruit leather. Made from pureed ripe mangoes that are simmered into thickness, the paste is then shaped into thin round leaves and sun dried. This is also known as ma muaang guaan (มะม่วงกวน).
In classic Thai language, Sohm lim (ส้มลิ้ม) designates sourness. It can be either shom choon or sohm pen that were made from unripe green mangoes or very sour star gooseberries (ma yohm มะยม Phyllanthus acidus); when sun dried into thin leaves, sohm lim are usually smaller than sohm pen.
The staple Siamese diet remained unchanged for many centuries, and was composed mainly of rice, fish and shrimp, and locally found or cultivated plants and animals. We know that mangoes were available to the Siamese as early as the 13th century, as the ‘mango forest’ (bpaa ma muaang ป่ามะม่วง) is mentioned by King Ramkhamheang, the third king of The Sukhothai Dynasty, in his stone inscription written in 1292.
Nicolas Gervaise and Simon de la Loubère, Europeans who visited Siam in the 1680s, describe the capital, Ayutthaya, and the court and gardens of King Narai. As well, they provide detailed accounts of the country’s commercial plantations, which included durian, betel nut palm and mango.
In the linguistic group of the Southwestern Tai languages, the word “sohm” (ส้ม) is used to indicate tartness and will often appear in the names of dishes that contain tangy fruit or lead with a sour taste.
- muu sohm (หมูส้ม) – Fermented pork.
- bplaa sohm (ปลาส้ม) – Fermented fish, usually deep-fried and eaten with fresh chilies and shallots.
- sohm dtam (ส้มตำ) – Papaya salad.
- khuaa sohm (คั่วส้ม) – Coconut-based sour curry.
- gaaeng sohm (แกงส้ม) – Sour curry.
- miang sohm (เมี่ยงส้ม) – A leaf-wrapped appetizer that usually contains pomelo, green mango or green marian plum (มะปราง bouea macrophylla).
- sohm fak (ส้มฟัก) – Minced fish fermented with cooked rice and salt.
- sohm suuk luuk mai (ส้มสูกลูกไม้) – A general ancient term for edible fruits and berries.
Sohm choon salad is absent from literature and other documents from the late Ayutthaya period; it is not even mentioned in the collection of Prince Thammathibet (เจ้าฟ้าธรรมาธิเบศร). The son of King Borommakot (สมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวบรมโกศ), Prince Thammathibet was a gifted writer and poet whose writing reflects the life of the aristocracy in the late Ayutthaya period. However, this might be due to the destruction during the Burmese-Siamese wars of many manuscripts of that period, which were most likely lost amid the smoke and fire of the fall of Ayutthaya.
It was not until the early 1800s – when King Rama II wrote “Gaap heh chohm khreuuang khaao waan” within his culinary themed poetry written for singing on the Royal Barge – that sohm choon is cited as a sweet dish.
Sohm choon salad according to the Tinnakorn Royal lineage
This recipe was preserved by Chef Yupha Wongsurin (คุณยายยุพา วงศ์สุรินทร์), the housekeeper of Thai Hap Pheuy Palace (วังท้ายหับเผย). The Palace was the residence of Jao Jaawm Manda Sila (Bangchang) (เจ้าจอมมารดาศิลา ราชินิกุล บางช้าง), the mother of Crown Prince Tinnakorn Krom Luang Phuwanatenarinrit (พระเจ้าบรมวงศ์เธอ พระองค์เจ้าทินกร กรมหลวงภูวเนตรนรินทร์ฤทธิ์), who was the 35th son of King Rama II, 1801-1856 AD.
Chef Yupha Wongsurin explained that the mango should be sliced with a special brass knife called “meet thaawng maa laaw” (มีดทองม้าฬ่อ), to prevent the mango from tarnishing. Then the mango is rubbed with salt and soaked in sweet syrup. The salad consists of ground dry shrimp and deep-fried shrimp, as well as sweet pork condiment, crispy deep-fried fluffy grilled catfish, and fried dry chilies.
Sohm choon salad according to Princess Jongjittanom Dissakul of Varadis Palace
Another recipe comes from Princess Jongjittanom Dissakul of Varadis Palace (หม่อมเจ้าจงจิตรถนอม ดิศกุล แห่งวังวรดิศ). In this version, the green mango slices are served with grilled fermented shrimp paste; roughly chopped shallots; sweet pork condiment made from the meat and fat, and cut into small bite-sized pieces; deep-fried fluffy grilled catfish; and fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice (if the mango is not sour enough), along with deep-fried dry chilies cut into small pieces.
- 2 medium size Green sour mangoes
- 2 tablespoon Sweet pork condiment meat
- 1 tablespoon Sweet pork condiment sauce
- 1 1/2 cups Deep-fried fluffy crispy catfish
- 1 teaspoon Fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon Palm sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste (kapi)(กะปิย่างไฟ)
- 2 tablespoons Shallots roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoon Lime juice
- 3 large dry chili peppers finely sliced
for making sweet pork condiment (muu waan)
- 300 g Pork belly
- 5 tablespoons Palm sugar
- 4 tablespoons Fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons water
for making deep-fried crispy & fluffy catfish
- 1 1/2 cups Grilled catfish meat from about 2 small fishes
- Vegetable oil for deep frying
Prepare the sweet pork
- Cook the pork belly until it is soft; add a pandan leaf to infuse a pleasant scent into the meat.
- Slice the pork meat into small, uniform pieces.
- Place the palm sugar in a wok over low heat and stir constantly; the sugar will melt and begin to caramelize.
- When the sugar has caramelized and turned a deep amber color, add water and fish sauce.
- Let the sugar dissolve in the liquids, and then add the sliced cooked pork belly.
- Cook the pork, stirring constantly, until the liquids reduce and the pork acquires a transparent brown shine.
- Set the sweet pork aside.
Making fluffy crispy fish:
- Charcoal grill a whole catfish over low heat until dry. The process is described here.
- Remove the meat from the fish; discard the skin and bones.
- With a heavy knife, finely mince the catfish meat. Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
- In a wide wok, heat oil for deep frying.
- Drop about a half-cup of minced fish meat at a time.
- Allow the fish to fry until it has formed into the shape of a floating raft.
- Flip it over, and fry the other side until it is golden and crispy.
- Drain and set aside.
Assembling the dish
- Deep fry the dried chilies until shiny and crispy.
- Place a small amount of sweet pork condiment in a mixing bowl.
- Add fish sauce.
- Add palm sugar.
- Add grilled fermented shrimp paste.
- Add roughly chopped shallots.
- Add a squeeze of lime juice.
- Add fried dry chilies.
- Mix the dressing ingredients and adjust the flavors to your taste.