What is that smell? Pla Ra (ปลาร้า) and Som Tum (ส้มตำ)

Driving home from town the other day I stopped off at my sister in laws shop to drop of some stock that I had picked up for her. She was a little busy as parked out the front was this vehicle.

It takes a lot to get my SIL excited so I was interested in what it was that the man was selling to make her grin like a shot fox. I ventured closer to take a look but it was the smell that hit me before I could even see what was in the containers.

To everyone’s amusement I backed up very quickly as the smell that was attacking my nose is seriously one of the worst things in the world that man has ever created. Why they bothered with Mustard gas in the war is beyond me when this lethal concoction was readily available in North Eastern Thailand.

It is called Pla ra (ปลาร้า). It is basically a fermented fish sauce and is so popular in the North East of Thailand that it almost forms its own currency!

It is made by pickling fish. There are a few varieties in it but the main ingredient is the Snake head fish. Once the fish is caught, cleaned and cut up into small pieces it is thrown into a big jar along with salt and rice bran before being covered with a wooden lid. There it lies for between three months and a year, slowly but surely fermenting itself into the it’s pernicious final product.

So why make such a vile product? Well apparently it is meant to taste really good! It is mainly used in what would have to be the most popular dish in the North East. Som Tum (ส้มตำ). Som Tum is a spicy salad usually made from shredded green papaya. Just amongst my family here in the village it would be eaten on average once a day, every day.

So this man with the stink bomb on wheels travels all around the area selling his own special concoction of hell and the locals can’t get enough of it!

I took a big breath and entered back into ground zero just to take the following two photos for you the reader. You can thank me by clicking on one of the advertising links when you have finished this story!

He was a delight to talk to and really made me laugh when we had the following conversation. I have embellished it ever so slightly as I wish my Thai language skills were that good, but the aren’t. The final line is exactly what was said though.

Stinky Fish Man: “Why did you back away like a man who has just seen a ghost?”

Ignorant Foreigner: “Because what ever it is you are selling stinks like all my nightmares rolled into one”

Stinky Fish Man: “But this is Pla ra (ปลาร้า), the most famous ingredient in Thailand. With out it, Thailand would simply stop.”

Ignorant Foreigner: “That may be the case but it is an assault on my senses. I don’t know how anyone can make it, smell it, let alone eat it.”

Stinky Fish Man: “You eat cheese don’t you?”

Chalk up a point to the Stinky Fish Man as he does have a point!


7 responses to “What is that smell? Pla Ra (ปลาร้า) and Som Tum (ส้มตำ)

  1. The most accurate description I’ve ever heard —> “his own special concoction of hell”

    I almost knocked over MIL’s jar once. The whole room gasped and jumped as if I were about to drop a priced jewel or something.

    • Glad that someone else agrees with me! I can just imagine the look on your families face. Classic! Just imagine the smell if you did knock it over!

  2. Hi Mocky,
    How are you???
    I dont have facebook anymore and found your website saved onto my favourites header on my old computer!!!!!!
    We are coming to phuket in June for a holiday!!! Even bringing Roza….
    Lets hope we dont smell any Pla ra !!!!
    Hope life is great
    Donna Aladin xoxo

    • Hi Donna, I am great thanks! Good to hear from you. I got rid of Facebook about three months ago myself and am happy that I did. Too many opportunities for me to speak my mind and get into trouble!! Glad that you found your way back to this blog. Even happier to hear that you are heading back to Thailand again and this time with Roza in tow! I hope you have a blast. If you do happen to come across any Pla ra, you will certainly know about it! Perhaps you could order it for your husband in a bowl of som tum as a nice surprise! We are heading back to Australia soon so will be seeing you around.

  3. Andrew – I know the smell well.

    I usually take a big plastic coca cola bottle full of Pla ra back to England for my mate’s Thai wife. Heaven help me at UK customs if the bottle ever leaks. I’m sure a springer spaniel wouldn’t hang around that smell too long.

    Here’s a link to a post I wrote in January last year about how to make North East Thailand’s favourite dish, Som Tum.

    http://www.thaisabai.org/2011/01/som-tum-or-som-tam-isaan-style-spicy-thai-papaya-salad/

  4. I wouldn’t be worried about the bottle leaking. What happens if customs spotted it and said ‘ello ello, what ave we here?’ and then proceeded to open the lid to have a whiff……
    You would get 5 years for assaulting a public officer!!!
    Thanks for your link about making som tum. A very good read.

  5. It took me a while to get used to fish sauce, now I can’t be without it!, Especially bpla naam prik. It seems fish sauce morphs into fermented thickish fish sauce, then into fermented fish paste as one travels more northish and more eastish…eventually to Vietnam. Potent stuff!!

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