Somtum Cinderella: Social success in Bangkok’s culinary streets

Paul Bograd

Posted on September 18, 2006

Before reading the rest of this piece I offer you a short discourse on “The Somtum Lady,” one of the iconic images of day-to-day life in Bangkok, and across Thailand for that matter.

Somtum as many readers may already know is the staple of Thai street cuisine. This unripe, green papaya salad represents the very core of Thai flavor. It is renowned for its interchanging balance as each of the four flavors takes culinary center stage as the salad is consumed. First the sweet, then the sour, then the salt and each bite highlighted by the fiery undertones of Thai Bird Chilies. The flavor wraps around the crunchy strands of unripe papaya and depending on your mood the flavor is enhanced with additions like fermented land crab, or salted egg, or my favorite: icy fresh uncooked ocean crab. The sweetness of the raw crab juxtaposed against the fiery Somtum makes regular sashimi as ordinary as a plastic bag of generic white bread.

Somtum is sold from street carts by tens of thousands of Somtum Ladies across Bangkok and Thailand. They are the lady commanders and social trendsetters of an armada of food carts and food stalls that feed Thailand.

And with this short cultural insight my story begins:

It started off innocently enough as I picked up my wife from her afternoon Sukhumvit Road-based yoga class in the middle of Bangkok’s “Foreigner Ghetto” that we call home.

Over the past few years I have learned more about the complex relationship between foreigners and Thais from the adventures of my wife’s yoga classmates than from any other source. So I eagerly await her return from class so I can indulge my prurient desires for gossip and anecdotes to pass on to my buddies. Failed romances and sexual dalliances, racial discrimination in the workplace, plastic surgery tales of horror and the odd transsexual progress update all make up part of the story.

Today’s story was of particular interest to me. The central characters and locations for this tale of social success were my favorite Somtum Lady and her assistant (The assistant is the principal in the story.).

This Somtum Lady creates her Somtum culinary alchemy on Sukhumvit Soi 16 and produces Somtum in such demand that you must call in advance if you hope to have any within two hours before or after lunchtime (It is telling that most Somtum Ladies labor in anonymity. They are simply and respectfully known as The Somtum Lady.).

Well on this Saturday at the Yoga class, standing among the usual attendees of Foreigners, Thai Yuppies and self-described “Hi-So” Thai ladies, was of all people, The Somtum Lady’s assistant. By the way, “Hi-So” is short for “High Society.” It is a very common self-descriptive term used by some Thais to define their superior status as people (If my description of Hi-So sounds rather pejorative and mocking, it is meant to be.).

For the record Somtum Ladies’ assistants don’t really earn much money. It is a job you do for love, or because you can’t find anything else, so her presence at this rather pricey yoga academy and health spa was surprising in both economic and social terms. My wife and our friend Joyce, both of whom are regulars at the Soi 16 Somtum Lady immediately went to greet the Somtum Lady assistant whom they knew pretty well. Joyce, is a Zimbabwean who teaches elementary school and advanced Yoga classes here in Bangkok, and like my wife Hazel is a genuinely friendly person. But I suspect that their rush to greet the Somtum Lady’s assistant was motivated more by desire for gossip than casual comradeship. And to my delight, gossip there was.

It seems that a foreigner working at one of the office buildings near to the Soi 16 Somtum Lady had been harboring desires for the Somtum Lady’s assistant. Over a period of several months these desires became a relationship and the “Somtum Lady’s assistant’s dreams had come true, at least for near-term future. She had given up her career as a “Somtum Lady assistant and moved in with the foreigner and was now a “Lady of Leisure” supervising their home and going to the Spa and Yoga classes. It was a classic tale of social success in Bangkok.

But for me the most interesting part was yet to come. When Joyce and Hazel asked the Somtum Lady’s assistant if she had told this news to the Somtum Lady herself, the assistant said she had not because she didn’t want the Somtum Lady to feel bad that the Assistant had such good fortune and the Somtum Lady herself had not.

This got me to thinking about the difference between the common man in Thailand (or in this case the common Somtum Lady’s assistant) and the self proclaimed Hi-So ladies. Out of concern for the feelings of the Somtum Lady, the Somtum Lady assistant didn’t want to appear to be gloating or bragging. Compare this with many of the Hi-So ladies who callously, purposely, regularly and ostentatiously parade their symbols of wealth past those who have very little.

This story about the Somtum Lady and her assistant tells you a great deal about Thailand.

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