Nam Prik 101: Is Thailand losing its pungent, chili paste heritage?

Much is made of how rice, or khao, is the foundation on which Thai food is based. But that foundation is actually built – quite literally – on chili paste, or nam prik.

Pastes form the start of almost every Thai dish in the culinary lexicon. They serve as the bulk of a marinade, base of a curry, body of a stir-fry, dressing in a salad, and of course as a chili dip (called krueang jim) accompanied by vegetables and some sort of protein. They are what almost every Thai dish needs for body, flavor and aroma.

And there are so many different kinds. Thai TV personality Chef McDang likens chili pastes to the “mother sauces” of French cuisine – the basis of nearly every dish in France, varying in accordance with time and region. Krueang jim evolved similarly, mirroring the culinary preferences of each region and even of each era. Even better, chili dips deliver the sort of unapologetic shot of pepper-packed flavor that Thai food is famous for. When surrounded by their traditional accompaniments (and each dip has different ones to set off the flavor in the best possible way) and a bowl of rice, krueang jim is the ultimate square meal, in a handy, easy-to-carry package.

Chef McDang likes to say there was once a time when houses along the street would start ringing with the sound of the mortar and pestle at dusk, because everyone was busy making their chili pastes for dinner. Chili paste – one of the pillars of a traditional Thai meal – were once so associated with the home and cooking that a popular saying for a man who had cheated on his wife was “he had tasted another woman’s nam prik.” 

A shame, then, that krueang jim would start fading from Thai restaurant menus in Bangkok and be nearly unheard-of abroad. Yet as with many other things worth tasting, it’s a casualty of the times. No busy person has the time to painstakingly cut up the seven to 10 ingredients called for in a standard nam prik and then go to town on them with a mortar and pestle. Using a food processor only results in mediocre chili paste, because the essential oils aren’t released. Hence, krueang jim – both nam prik and lon (a chili dip tempered with coconut milk or cream) seem on the way out of day-to-day life. But some will die a faster death than others.

For example, I don’t think I’ll ever find nam prik prik Thai orn (chili dip made with black peppercorns) again after one of my favorite restaurants in Bangkok, Ruea Thong, closed earlier this year. The nam prik kai pu (crab egg chili dip) at Supanniga Eating Room (160/11 Thonglor ) is nice but can’t compare to the memory of my old favorite. That’s just the way things go.
However, it would be hard to imagine Thailand without nam prik kapi (chili dip with shrimp paste). Despite the current disdain for fishy, strong flavors, no other dish really transmits the flavors meant to embody Thai food so fully.

People just don’t want to create those flavors inside their own homes where the smell is likely to linger for days unless you have a traditional open-air kitchen. They want someone else to deal with it. This is where restaurants are supposed to step in. A proper nam prik kapi will have the traditional fixings: an assortment of raw and blanched vegetables including winged beans and cabbage, squares of egg-battered acacia leaves and eggplant, and deep-fried Thai mackerel.

Naturally, the south has its own variations on krueang jim. Possibly the most famous of these is the Phuket standby nam prik goong siap: a dip of large dried shrimp melded with garlic, shrimp paste and chilies and crowned with a sliver of lime. Accompaniments include both raw and blanched vegetables, but white rice is a must – and maybe an omelet or three. After all, you’ll need these to soothe the pain of the chili peppers.

But the most enduring and popular chili dips just might hail from the north. The mild, Bolognese-like nam prik ong (chili dip with ground pork, fermented soybeans and tomatoes) and fiery nam prik num (roasted banana pepper dip) – paired with pork rinds and blanched vegetables – can be found on almost any restaurant menu with even a passing interest in Thailand’s north, as well as in every wet market you can think of. 

The best place to get all of these variations? Probably at Thailand’s own “Whole Foods Market,” better known as Or Tor Kor on Kampangphet Road.

Photos: Karen Blumberg


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