I can explain how it happened. I was meandering through my local Asian food market, a gastronomic playground, and there they were… bright red, glossy little Thai chili peppers. Yes, I knew they were hotter than the surface of the sun, but they looked so happy, they just had to come home with me. See how they just POP! among the food jewels I procured…
Two things occurred to me as I pondered the Thai chilies waiting expectantly in my German American kitchen. First, I realized I may have gotten a teeny bit carried away purchasing a half pound of the fiery little peppers. Second, I realized that the peppers on my countertop represented precisely a half pound more than the sum total of all of the hot peppers in all of the recipes handed down by my European and Scandinavian elders. [I’m a little bit Norwegian, too… you know how us Norwegians love to slather hot peppers all over our potato lefse…]
Enter the internet. After brainstorming online, I settled on Nam Prik Pao – Thai Chili Paste – as my chosen way of honoring these peppers. I found approximately one million and four different recipes, featuring about that same number of different ingredients and preparation techniques. “Inquiring Chef” and “She Simmers” offered particularly comprehensive descriptions (thank you!). Every recipe, I noticed, offered some combination of sweet, sour, umami, and salt… all seemingly to balance the HOT of the peppers. I used that combination as a template, played around with ratios through a few dozen samples, and here is what I came up with. I think it’s delightful, and fancy using it in many of the Asian and Oceanic Global Recipe Project recipes which call for chili paste. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!
Nam Prik Pao (Makes 4 small jars, 4 ounces each)
1 1/2 cups whole, peeled garlic cloves
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
2 tablespoons water
Step 1) Toast peppers in a dry frying pan over high heat, shaking the pan often, until the peppers have a few blackened char marks and smell very fragrant. This will only take a few minutes.
Step 2) Add garlic and onion to peppers. Continue shaking the pan over high heat until the garlic and onion begins to brown slightly. Don’t let the garlic or onion burn! Remove from heat and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid. Let the pan sit and “sweat” for 10 minutes.
Step 3) Very, very carefully, puree the pepper mixture in a blender or food processor. If you get any of this in your eyes or under your fingernails, you will probably wish for a quick death, so seriously, be careful.
Step 5) Add water until desired thickness is obtained. If you want a true “paste,” don’t add any water at all. If you want a pourable sauce, add up to 1/2 cup of water. I used 2 tablespoons for a thick sauce that sticks to a spoon like molasses.
Step 6) Spoon into small jars, seal, and refrigerate. This recipe will fit in a single pint jar, but I recommend using several very small jars and giving a few of them away to food-adventurous friends. Over the next few weeks, I’ll show you a few fabulous recipes which use small quantities of this sauce!