Som Chun: Thailand’s strangely delicious hot-season delicacy

Som chun, a sweet and sour aromatic dish, is a traditional Thai dessert eaten during the hot season. It is also known as "Thai afternoon tea".

The Nation

The Nation



April 25, 2023

BANGKOKThis is som chun, a refreshing and aromatic sweet-sour Thai afternoon delicacy traditionally eaten during the hot season. Som chun has unique flavours and textures that are prized by foodies. Find out how to make this lip-smacking treat from an expert

Som chun, a sweet and sour aromatic dish, is a traditional Thai dessert eaten during the hot season. It is also known as “Thai afternoon tea”.

Som chun was named for the pungent smell of pickled lychees that were imported in jars to Thailand. The word “som” means sour, while “chun” means pungent.

The main ingredients for som chun are seasonal fruits that give a sour and succulent flavour, such as maprang (mango plum), mayong chid (marian plum), lychee, mayom (star gooseberry) and talingpling (bilimbi or tree sorrel).

Lending som chun its distinctive blend of savoury and dessert elements are ginger, shallots, coconut flakes and roast peanuts.

A traditional Thai afternoon snack is loi kaew, or fruit in refreshing sweet syrup. Unlike som chun, loi kaew can contain a variety of fruits, such as toddy palm fruit, cotton fruit, rambutan, salak fruit and mangosteen.

Thais like to remove the seeds from fruit for loi kaew, said Jantararat Hemvej from Studio Chan, which specialises in culinary art and craft.

Som chun

“And for loi kaew, fresh fruit is doused in warm syrup rather than being candied,” she said.

Meanwhile, som chun is prized by foodies for its many different tastes and textures– sourness from orange, spiciness from the sliced ginger, the crunch of roasted coconut and peanuts, and sweetness from the syrup.

Jantararat said som chun is best eaten as a dessert or snack on hot afternoons.

“Thai foods have three main flavours: sour, salty and sweet,” she explained.

This trio of flavours should always be balanced in a meal.

“For instance, if we have salty food such as salted fish, we should have sour and sweet foods in our set to make it complete.”

Jantararat said som choon and loi kaew have deep roots in Thai culinary history. The former featured in “Verse on Foods and Desserts” written by King Rama II, whose reign lasted from 1809 to 1824.

Jantararat Hemvej: traditional Thai cooking expert from Studio Chan

The verse is thought to have been written as a compliment to Queen Sri Suriyendra, who was skilled in the culinary arts.

Thai fruit dishes have been renowned for their beautiful presentation ever since.

Jantararat explained that Thais traditionally removed seeds from fruit offered to monks, in line with the Sekiyawat rules for monastic behaviour. The rules say monks should not consume seeded fruit.

Nowadays, the seeds are removed to make som chun more appealing for everyone. “Those who eat our food should feel that we put effort into our culinary art,” she said.

Seasonal fruits previously available all year round offered different som chun flavours. We may have forgotten fruits like yellow mangosteen, mapring (marin fruit), mangosteen and the mango varieties Namtan Tao, Pimsen, Tok Tuek and Brahma Tee Mia, she said.

“Stewed takob [Indian plums] can also be used in loi kaew,” she added. “Some people soak crushed star gooseberry in salted water to reduce the sourness before tossing them in.

“Talingpling [bilimbi] can also be used in som chun, but we slice it into small pieces because it is very sour.”

Like other traditional dishes including khao chae (fragrant cold rice), som chun is becoming popular again thanks to the trend for all things retro.

“In our fast-paced world of social media and rolling news, people want to pause and enjoy a touch of nostalgia,” Jantararat said, adding that many people are now asking her to teach them how to make traditional Thai food.

Other classic Thai desserts for hot season include pla haeng tangmo (watermelon with dried fish flakes) and ma haw (minced pork and shrimp paste on fruit segments).

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