Spicy Corn Salad from Bangkok cookbook by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Photography by David Loftus
Earlier this year, I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme about Thailand’s Royal Project. The , started in 1969, was an idea of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej to transform opium-growing land into sustainable agricultural crops that produced more income for the growers than their opium trade produced, and to replace expensive imported produce with locally grown versions. Listening to how this project has transformed the variety of food available in Thailand enabled me to more fully understand the story behind author Leela Punyaratabandhu’s recipe for Som Tam Khao Phot (Spicy Corn Salad) in her recent cookbook, . Usually I look forward to summer’s corn so that I can make creamed corn, one of my absolute favorite dishes. This year, Spicy Corn Salad moves to number one! –
Why Leela loves this recipe: In the context of Thai cooking, fresh corn has traditionally been used almost exclusively in desserts and sweet snacks. I can count with one hand the traditional savory dishes that has fresh corn kernels in them. Here in America, however, it seems the opposite is true: fresh corn is considered a vegetable and nearly always used in savory applications. When a Thai sees a corn cob, she thinks, “ice cream topping!” or “sweet rice pudding with corn!” or even “yogurt topping!” On the other side of the globe, you see corn cobs served as a side dish or with a crab boil.
But things have changed. People have become more open and creative. American chefs are making ice cream with fresh corn. Likewise, fresh corn has popped up in more modern savory Thai dishes. This version of som tam featuring sweet corn wasn’t what my grandparents or parents grew up eating. But it’s wildly popular and found all over Bangkok and all of Thailand these days along with the less traditional and more creative iterations of this classic spicy salad.
This recipe also demonstrates that even though green papaya is by far the most popular and the most common ingredient for som tam (so much so that the dish has come to be referred to in the West as ‘Thai green papaya salad’), it’s by no means the only ingredient the Thais use. Several sorts of fresh produce can be used to make som tam, and fresh corn at its peak—sweet, plump, and juicy—works very well here.
Reprinted with permission from Bangkok by Leela Punyaratabandhu, copyright © 2017. Photography by David Loftus. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
About Leela: Leela Punyaratabandhu is the author of the award-winning blog and the book . She was recently included among the Epicurious list of . Her writing has appeared on CNN Travel, Serious Eats, Food52, and in the Wall Street Journal. Dividing her time between Chicago and Bangkok, Punyaratabandhu writes about Thai food in the United States and Thailand. Follow Leela on Instagram and on Twitter . is her most recent book.
- 4 ears corn, husks and silk removed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups ice cubes
- 2 large cloves garlic
- 2 or 3 fresh bird eye’s chiles
- 1½ tablespoons dried shrimp
- ¼ cup unsalted roasted peanuts
- 3 ounces long beans or 16 green beans, trimmed and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
- 10 cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
- ½ cup peeled and grated carrot (optional)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce, or as needed
- 1½ tablespoons fresh lime juice, or as needed
- Grated palm sugar, for seasoning
Place the corn in a 4-quart saucepan, add water to cover barely, and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. While the water is heating, put the ice cubes in a large bowl and add water to cover. The moment the water boils, cook the corn for 2 minutes, then immediately transfer it to the ice bath and let cool to room temperature. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel.
Stand an ear of corn on its stem end on a work surface and, using a sharp knife, cut from the top downward in a sawing motion, cutting as deeply into the kernels as possible, and rotating the ear a quarter turn after each cut. Transfer the kernels to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining ears.
In a mortar, grind the garlic to a paste. Add the chiles and smash them into small pieces. Add the dried shrimp and pound until they break up. Add 2 tablespoons of the peanuts and pound them into small pieces about the size of a match head. Add the beans and smash them until they split open, then do the same with the tomato halves. Transfer the contents of the mortar to the corn bowl and add the carrot.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice, and a pinch of sugar to the corn mixture and toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar if needed. If your tomatoes and corn aren’t very sweet, more sugar will be in order. I like my corn salad equally salty, sweet, and sour, but you do what you like.
Plate the salad, sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons peanuts over the top, and then serve right away with rice or alone as a mid-meal snack.