Why It Works
- Charring the chiles and aromatics under the broiler lends smoky complexity to the paste.
- Cooking nam prik pao down in oil to a jammy consistency builds depth of flavor by coaxing out fat-soluble aromas, and removes moisture, which helps extend refrigerator shelf life.
- Palm sugar adds complex butterscotch-like sweetness, which is balanced by savory dried shrimp.
Nam prik pao is versatile pantry staple in Thai cuisine, a thick, savory, sweet, and slightly spicy paste—or jam or relish, if you prefer—primarily made from dried spur chiles, garlic, shallots, and dried shrimp. It’s used as a flavor-boosting condiment for soups, stir-fries, salads, and fried rice. You can also used it as a spread for toast and sandwiches.
The “pao” in nam prik pao means to burn or grill, and it refers to the important step of charring the chiles, shallots, and garlic to develop their flavor before they’re processed into a paste along with the shrimp, tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, and oil, and then cooked down in more oil.
Nam prik pao has a distinct flavor. It’s quite strong, which means that it isn’t used “all the time.” But because nothing else tastes quite like it, when a dish needs it, it’s irreplaceable.
Like a prik gaeng, nam prik pao is traditionally pounded into a paste by hand in a mortar and pestle. This time-consuming process is one of the main reasons why most Thai people prefer to purchase jarred nam prik pao. Some homemade versions even call for frying shallots and garlic separately, rather than charring them, before processing them into the paste. I prefer a more streamlined approach in which I quickly char the ingredients under the broiler (traditionally the ingredients are dry-roasted in a wok or cooked over an open flame). I then use an electric spice grinder to pulverize the dried chiles and a food processor to bring the paste together in a matter of a couple of minutes.
I transfer the paste to a saucepan or wok, and cook it down with a generous amount of oil until the sugars begin to caramelize and the mixture takes on a jammy consistency. It’s important to take your time with this part of the process; as the relish cooks in the ample quantity of oil, fat-soluble aromas in the pastes’s ingredients are coaxed out, and the flavors deepen and meld together. The flavorful oil that rises to the top is itself a prized ingredient known as nam man prik pao, and it’s bottled and sold like a chile oil.
The resulting paste strikes the perfect balance between savory and sweet, with background heat from the chiles. This stuff also lasts “forever” when stored properly in the fridge. And by that I mean I’ve never seen nam prik pao go bad, even after an open jar was discovered in the back of my fridge after who knows how long.
The process provided in the recipe uses a combination of a coffee grinder for dry ingredients, and a food processor for the final paste, though an immersion blender works in place of a food processor, too, and if you’re feeling old-school, you can certainly use a granite mortar and pestle. However you prepare it, the consistency of the paste doesn’t need to be ultra fine, as the shallots and garlic will effectively dissolve during the cooking process, though the chiles do need to be ground finely in a spice grinder, as they don’t break down with cooking.
Like other umami-rich condiments, once you make a batch of nam prik pao, you’ll find yourself adding a spoonful of it to everything, from Thai salads to avocado toast (one of my personal favorites).