Sweetness & Power (6) – Sweet Isaan: The changing taste of som tam


Guest contribution by Chaanont Chaithongdee and Jirayut Akkabut

Humans can blame their craving for all things sweet on evolution. At least if one is to believe Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the bestseller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” Thirty thousand years ago, he writes, a typical forager knew only one kind of sweet food: fruit that is ripe. When coming across such a treat, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as much as possible on the spot. A blessing or a curse, modern humans carry this gift of evolution in their DNA.

This widely accepted theory relates to the question of this essay: How did humans learn to incorporate sweetness as a flavoring of food thus making it part of their culture and way of life? More specifically, when did sweetness arrive in Isaan and how did the region’s cuisine begin to make use of sugar?

A vendor adding sweetness to the som tam by adding paste sugar which can be made from palm, coconut, or cane sugar.

Historical evidence shows that Siamese people ate a simple diet of rice and fish.

They liked to eat savory food like dried fish, salted fish, and fermented fish. Sweetness, on the other hand, only recently infiltrated the country’s eating culture, including northeastern cuisine.

Research shows that in the reign of King Narai (1656 – 1688), sweet food was considered the food of the elite and the high classes.

There may have been a centuries-long trend toward sweeter food. An article by writer Kham Paka describes how people from rural areas or from lower-class backgrounds aspired to climb the social ladder and become part of the Bangkok middle class. The easiest way to peel away their rural nature was to change their eating habits. They ate less spicy food, food with a lot of spices, or rural food, and turned to all things sweet. This was based on the perception that sweetness is the flavor of “nobles.”

What is surprising is the fact that Isaan food later became widely popular among Bangkokians. This was partly because of its low price which suited the financial situation of the urban working class. But in the capital, far away from its origin in the northeastern villages, Isaan food underwent a transformation and became much sweeter.

As for “authentic” Isaan food, Kham Paka writes, it could only be found in restaurants owned by Isaan working-class people. This further emphasizes the perception that “spicy food” is for lower class and rural people. Sweet food is the “taste of the civilized new generation.”

The centralized development of Bangkok is one of the factors that contributed to one might call the downfall of food, especially local food. Most cookbooks for regional cuisines like northern and Isaan food, or food from the South, have been published in Bangkok, often put together by editors whose knowledge about local food is questionable.

Isaan, sweetness, and sugar

In the late 1950s, the consumption of sweet dessert after meals became popular as the country’s economic development moved forward. Sweet desserts were also produced to be used in religious ceremonies.

An article by Chatchai Muksong titled “Sugar and the Consumption Culture of Sweetness in Thai Society (1961-1996)” presents a piece of evidence of sweetness in Isaan. In 1947, sugar cubes produced from local sugarcane in Nakhon Phanom province were exported to Udon Thani, Sakhon Nakhon, and Ubon Ratchathani provinces. By that time, local versions of sugar were produced all across the country. Refined white sugar needed to be imported to the Northeast from Bangkok at a higher price.

The Green Revolution beginning in the 1960s brought more refined white sugar and the consumption of local sugar varieties declined. In consequence, at that time, local sugar became a symbol of wealth as it was difficult to find and was sold at a higher price.

Paste sugar sold in plastic bags at a general store in the Northeast.

A common sweetener was paste sugar made from coconut or palm trees. The lumps, brown and very sticky, are packaged in 30 kilograms containers. High-quality paste sugar has a light brown color and unique smell.

Making paste sugar was an important traditional occupation of the people in Samut Songkhram province. The sugar was transported to Bangkok and nearby provinces, depending on the need of the market.

But today, paste sugar is mostly made by boiling and stirring white sugar until it becomes thick. It is packaged while still hot and left to harden. A lot of paste sugar is produced in Isaan where it is also added to different dishes.

For example, in Bueng Kan province, some people also use roasted paste sugar and roasted tamarind seeds to improve the color of pla daek, or fermented fish paste. Paste sugar is also used as herbal medicine by mixing it with lime and used as cough medicine.

Paste sugar became a product sold in the ingredients section alongside other ingredients such as white sugar, monosodium glutamate (MSG), soy sauce, and fish sauce.

Som tam’s changing flavors

Isaan food is generally salty and spicy. The importance of salt and fermented foods are reflected in Isaan idioms like: “Any woman, who can cook well with both salt and fermented fish–even if that woman is a slave–should be freed” (ญิงใด เฮ็ดกินพร้อม พอเกลือทั้งปลาแดก แมนเป็นข้อยเพิ่นฮ้อยชั้น ควรให้ไถ่เอา [ying dai het kin phrom pho klua thang pladaek maen pen khoi phoen hoi chan khuan hai thai ao].

Another idiom mentioning flavors is wao nua hua muan (เว้านัว หัวม่วน) which roughly translates to “delicious words and ready laughter.” The word “nua” in Isaan means a round, good mixture of flavors or very salty.

Isaan saltiness stems from fermented fish and salt. Som tam is one of the most popular Isaan food that gets its tastiness from mixing ingredients together well.

In som tam, consumers want the taste of spiciness and saltiness. Eating it with sticky rice and vegetables using hands makes the food even tastier.

Researcher Namfon Prasongdee suggests that som tam originated in the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang as the dish is mentioned in old Isaan literature describing the characteristics of a woman.

Podjamarn Putmee suggests in a study on the middle class and the communication of flavors through the consumption of som tam that Isaan migrant workers brought the dish with them to the capital.

When Isaan people migrated to the cities of Siam Proper, their communities expanded along with their Isaan eating culture.

In 1933, Bangkok started to have tricycles service. Many Isaan people who migrated to Bangkok worked as tricycle drivers. Their wives normally sold Isaan food along the road or the tricycle hubs.

In urban communities of laborers formed by construction workers or other day laborers, the wives often ended up running food stalls selling som tam, grilled chicken, grilled fish, and other Isaan food for other workers.

One of the very first Isaan restaurants in Bangkok was a grilled chicken restaurant by the Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium, built in 1945 after the Second World War at a time when many Isaan people sought work in the capital.

Som tam became popular not only because Isaan workers spread their culture all across the country, but also because the dish could be adapted to various different tastes.

In 1998-99, Thai Airways experimented with adapting som tam to the tastes of international consumers. The dish served up in the air consisted of strips of papaya mixed together with fish sauce, brown sugar, lime juice, garlic, chilli pepper, minced dried shrimps, and peanuts. None of the passengers complained about any bad smell and it was well received.

But as mentioned before, Isaan’s main flavor is its spiciness. Based on interviews, Namfon Prasongdee found that originally Isaan people mostly didn’t add any sugar to their som tam at all. In its most authentic version, the dish is supposed to taste spicy, sour, and salty.

The taste buds of Bangkokians required the additional sweetness to balance the flavours. Som tam on the menus in the capital soon included formerly unknown versions like fruit som tam and seafood som tam. Additionally, other ingredients were used to create diverse flavors such as adding small tomatoes, big tomatoes, pumpkin, yellow tomatoes, eggplants, and olives.

The saltiness of pla daek was replaced with salted crab, fermented crayfish, shrimp paste, and fish sauce, all familiar ingredients in the Central Thai cuisine.

The sweeter Bangkok version of the dish was termed tam thai while the saltier and spicier Isaan version is often called tam lao.

If som tam is to maintain its authenticity and the taste of local Isaan, the intensity of the flavors–spiciness, saltiness, sourness–cannot embrace sweetness.

However, the sweetness that Bangkok introduced to som tam made its way back to Isaan. Today, paste sugar is a common ingredient in Isaan som tam and has become a new kind of flavor for the younger generation in Isaan.

Paste sugar made from palm sugar is being used as an ingredient in a som tam restaurant in Isaan.

Everything about the sweetness and sugar, as well as the som tam of Isaan people in this article, is just a starting point for putting together the history of a certain flavor of food, one that connects agriculture with a large industry that is currently expanding and changing the livelihood of the people in the Northeast.

Once Isaan is sweetened, how will society adapt or rebel against what this development is bringing? Only time will tell.