In 2007, when residents reported noxious fumes in London’s Soho neighborhood, police and firefighters feared the possibility of a terrorist chemical attack. They smashed down the door of a small commercial storefront to discover the culprit: a pot of burning chilies. The chef of the Thai Cottage restaurant was making nam prik pao, the chili paste that just might be the secret weapon of Thai cuisine. A single bite of the jamlike concoction contains all the elements that make Thai food so addictive. It is at once spicy, salty, slightly sweet, smoky, and just a little bit sour.
In Thailand, most nam prik pao devotees have strong opinions about the right way to make it and the best way to eat it. The purists stick to the basics—roasted dried chilies, roasted garlic and shallots, fish sauce, dried shrimp, and palm sugar.
The improvisers come up with hundreds of riffs, depending on the region and the season, variations made with spicy ginger, mackerel, or green mango. Some people consume nam prik pao primarily as a dip for vegetables and crackers; others incorporate it into stir-fry dishes, salad dressings, and soups.
Thai people from all walks of life hold their nam prik pao memories dear. Nutchanand Osathanond, a Bangkok food columnist, cookbook author, and cooking teacher, remembers the paste from her childhood. “In the olden days, you made nam prik pao to give to your friends to take as a snack on trips to the country,” she says. “My favorite way to eat it is still as a dip with shrimp crackers.”
Korakot Punlopruska, a food writer and photographer based in Bangkok, recalls that when she was growing up, preparing nam prik pao was a special event for her large family, which came together to make big batches once or twice a year. For one day, the driveway of her house was converted into a makeshift kitchen. Family members roasted chilies and stir-fried garlic and shallots over a charcoal fire, and chopped and pounded all the ingredients by hand. They carefully followed the instructions of Punlopruska’s grandmother. “Nobody else can make it like she did, because the taste was in her tongue,” Punlopruska says. “She wanted to make everything from scratch, and it was a ritual that she controlled. She put a lot of love into it, and she was very serious.”
Like most Thai cuisine, nam prik pao is bold but delicately nuanced. Cooks typically make their chili jam by taste, so written recipes are hard to come by. Punlopruska compares the process of making nam prik pao to creating a theater piece. “There’s nothing really complicated in the actual cooking of Thai food,” she explains. “It’s all in the prep work—what happens before the ingredients come onstage. It’s like a long rehearsal, and you have to be ready to bring so many different elements together.”
In these fast-paced times, when premade versions are readily available in small shops and large supermarkets, homemade nam prik pao can be a rare treat. “If I can’t get the best, I don’t eat it,” Punlopruska says. “Savory and sweet together, that’s how it should be. It’s the blend of flavors that makes the magic.”
(MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS)
Adapted from a recipe by food writer Pim Techamuanvivit
2 to 3 ounces whole dried chilies (to make about 7 tbsp powder)
1 cup of peanut, coconut, or vegetable oil
2 medium heads of garlic, cloves peeled and sliced thin
5 medium shallots, peeled and sliced thin
2 tbsp Thai shrimp paste
1/4 cup tamarind paste
1/2 cup palm (or brown) sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 cup water
1. Heat the chilies in a wok over medium heat until they blacken in spots. Remove them from the wok and allow to cool.
2. Add about 3/4 cup of oil to the wok and raise the heat. When hot, add the garlic and fry until just golden.
3. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon to a tray lined with paper towels.
4. Fry and remove the shallots the same way.
5. Stem and seed the cooled chilies and grind them to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle or food processor.
6. Puree the shallots and garlic to a rough paste.
7. Add the shrimp paste and remaining 1/4 cup oil to the wok and fry and stir for about two minutes.
8. Add the chili powder and the garlic mixture, and stir in the tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce. Stir well and add the water.
9. Over medium-high heat, reduce the mixture to the texture of loose jam.
10. Transfer the paste to a bowl and allow it to cool. It will continue to thicken as it cools.
11. When cool, put the paste in an airtight jar. It will keep at room temperature for several months.
Nam Prik Nittaya
This well-known curry paste shop in the Banglamphu district sells nam prik pao that is just the right mixture of spicy, salty, and sweet. The store also stocks a wide selection of pastes, prepared curries, and other ready-made goods.
Aw Taw Kaw Market
Across the street from Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekend Market, Aw Taw Kaw sells beautiful fruits and seafood as well as a diverse variety of nam prik pao. The closest subway stop is Kamphaeng Phet.
Khao Tom Jay Suay
A classic Chinatown restaurant with a vast display of vegetables out front, Khao Tom Jay Suay serves such traditional dishes as smoked duck, jap chai (a vegetable stew), and clams stir-fried in nam prik pao.
>>Next: How (and Where) to Get Off the Beaten Path in Bangkok