Kaeng Thom Yam

February 4, 2008 at 1:06 AM (animals, chiles and other capsicums, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos, vegetables/ fruits)


This is a post for one of my all-time, most-favorite “soups” in the whole world, most often referred to simply as “thom yam”… The name literally means a stew of boiled salad, but in American Thai restaurants it is most often labeled as “Thai lemongrass soup” or “Thai hot-and-sour soup”, both of which are apt descriptions as it does make use of a good amount of lemongrass, and it is indeed hot and sour.

While usually served in these restaurants as a first course, in Thailand it is often served in a special ring-shaped tureen fitted about a central, heated chimney. This keeps it piping hot throughout the meal, as, instead of being a separate course (traditionally in Thailand all dishes are served at once), it is sipped and nibbled upon throughout the meal, each diner taking ladlesful whenever one fancies, as a sort of recourse of lightness to play against “heavier”, coconut-milk-based stews. But of course it is also a great one-dish meal for lunches- or any other time something easy on digestion is desired. It is even served with rice noodles- instead of rice- to Bangkok’s lunching and late-night crowds. Add to this great adaptability the nearly endless variety of vegetables and/or meats that it can be cooked with, and it is then that one realizes part of the reason for its remarkable popularity at home and abroad.

Because of this nature, an exact recipe is somewhat difficult to communicate (though there are many written, of course). I find it easier to keep a “loose” recipe handy, mostly a guide for flavouring the broth, and add amounts of meat or fish and vegetables that I find convenient and have on hand. When choosing and arranging vegetables for cooking, keep in mind how long each takes to cook until heated through, but still retaining some crispness (not soft). Seafood of various kinds (especially shrimp- known as thom yam goong) is by far the most popular choice, but chicken and duck are also popular, and I have also heard of using pork or beef, balls of minced meats or seafood, and certainly there exist vegetarian versions. 

In my latest rendition, I chose to use chicken (thom yam gai): I poached about 3 pounds, in water to cover, along with bruised coriander-roots, garlic, black peppercorns, and a little salt, for one hour; removed the meat from the bones and set it aside while I returned the scraps- snapping all bones in half- to boil for three more hours to achieve a good, rich stock. This was strained and allowed to cool, at which time I skimmed off and discarded most of the fat. I was left with about 2 quarts (8 cups) of stock, to which I added the following:

  • 4 stalks of lemongrass (takrai)- dry, outer leaves removed; each stalk cut into 2″-3″ segments
  • 1″ galanga (kha), unpeeled, thinly-sliced in rounds
  • 20 sprigs/stems of cilantro (pak chee)- stems only, cut across into 1/2″ pieces; (set the whole leaves aside for the final garnishing)
  • 12 lime leaves (bai magrut), twist each leaf to tear, leaving central stem intact

Allow this to simmer gently, covered, for 20-30 minutes; then add:

  • 4 T fish water/sauce (nam pla)
  • salt to taste

I had two bowls of vegetables arranged thus:

First bowl: 1 carrot, sliced; 2-3 C straw mushrooms, halved; 1 1/2 C green jackfruit, cut into bite-sized pieces.

Second bowl: 1 bunch of scallions/green onions, sliced into 2″ lengths on a diagonal; 3 roma tomatoes, diced into bite-sized chunks; 1 sweet yellow bell-pepper/capsicum, cut into 3/4″ squares.

Almost any vegetables of your choice can be used. I just have this “thing” about my thom yam containing mushrooms (of any kind!) and tomatoes…a preference if you will. My straw mushrooms and green jackfruit were both canned, so really the only vegetable I needed to be concerned with was the carrots, and these were so thinly-sliced that a brief, 4-5 minutes was all that was necessary. Raw, ripe fruits are also lovely used here- pineapple being exceptional!

So, bowl 1 was added, then a few minutes later bowl 2 was added, along with my cooked chicken which was also torn into bite-size pieces previously. I kept the heat on just until everything was heated through. Here in America, the bourgeois middle-class insist upon boneless, skinless chicken breast for everything, so, if you like, use this- thinly-sliced- instead of the stock-making meat. If you use shrimp (or other seafood), keep in mind that it takes only 1-2 minutes to cook, so add it at the appropriate interval during your vegetable “line-up”. Also, it seems to be common when cooking the seafood versions to use a mixture of chicken and seafood stock, but certainly this isn’t a rule, as I have seen recipes using pure shrimp stock.

At whatever point you add meat/seafood, this is the time to add:

This is the lovely, oily red paste which forms a red-tinged haze over the surface- one of the “chile-waters” in fact- that is a signature touch for this dish. When the vegetables and meat are done to your liking, season the stew with:

  • 6 T lime juice
  • some sugar, preferrably palm (I use about 1 t…but most Bangkokians prefer it much sweeter)
  • and check for salt level

Then scatter over the top:

  • the reserved cilantro leaves from above, and
  • 10-40 thinly-sliced red chiles

Serve- with or without rice or noodles.

Note: the pieces of lemongrass and lime leaves are not meant to be eaten; instead, these are set aside as one encounters them.


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Nam Prik Pao

February 1, 2008 at 4:55 AM (animals, chiles and other capsicums, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, marine, shrimp/prawns, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos, vegetables/ fruits)


Or, dry-roasted chile-water.  Except that, over several generations of cooks in Thailand, it became customary to deep-fry the ingredients before pounding them to a paste instead of dry-roasting them. Still, the old name remains…but, to tell you the truth, I have noticed a trend within the last few years of a nod backward to that old, oil-less method, which in turn is used to produce an equally oil-free version of one of my most favorite dishes, kaeng thom yam

Luckily, I was well-spoilt on the oily classic before that lack-lustre, long-cloistered twin came out of hiding, and scoff and jeer at it side-by-side-and-arm-in-arm with stubborn Thais who also refuse to accept it as worthy of bearing the same surname. No, give me my perfect pools of red-kissed oil floating dreamily across the surface of my thom yam, fragrant and infusing the broth with oily-rich, brown flavours that cling to my tongue and lips like luscious liquid lava!

Though… this chile-water (excuse me, I need to wipe my mouth after that last paragraph) is used to season other dishes as well, and is also a condiment in its own right: like other chile-waters, it pairs amazingly-well on a platter with raw vegetables, grilled meats or fish, and balls of rice.

This particular recipe I have taken, with minor adjustments, from the book, Cracking the Coconut, by Su-Mei Yu- without a doubt one of the best volumes ever written on classic Thai cooking, and I do recommend it to anyone interested in a concise, detailed and extremely well-researched treatise on the subject. (And yes, to keep pace with the growing trend both here in the West and in her homeland, she provides vegan alternatives within many of the foundation recipes).

Nam Prik Pao

3/4 C vegetable oil (coconut oil is traditional, but other oils, such as peanut, are also fine)

1 C dried shrimp

1/2 C thin slices of garlic

1 C thin slices of shallots or onions

1 1/2 C torn, mostly-seeded pieces of clean, dry red chiles (I used a mixture of hot and medium-hot chiles)

1/3 C palm sugar, or other brown sugar

1/4 C thick tamarind extract

1/3 C nam pla (fish water/sauce)

2 T kapi (fermented shrimp paste)

0)Wrap the kapi in a small envelope of banana-leaf, parchment-paper, aluminum foil, or soaked corn-husk . Grill in a dry pan set over a medium flame, flipping now and then, for 6-10 minutes- until a pleasant charred flavour emanates. Remove packet and set aside to cool. 

1)Rinse the dried shrimp just briefly in cool water; drain well.

2)Heat the oil in a wok over medium-low flame, add the shrimp and fry, stirring constantly, until browned and crispy; remove from the oil to drain, recapturing the oil if possible to add back into the pan.

3)Do the same separately with the garlic, shallots (these should be fried on high heat in the beginning, turning it down as they progress to brown), and chiles (just until a shade darker- 1 minute or so), in that order. Remove the pan from the heat for the moment.

4)Pound, using a mortar-and-pestle, or process, using an electric grinder, these fried ingredients to a paste, again starting with the dried shrimp and continuing in the same order, adding the next only when the previous has formed a smooth paste.*

5)Mix in the sugar, then the tamarind paste and fish sauce; unwrap the kapi, add and blend well.

6)Heat the wok- with the remaining oil (you should have about 1/4 C left; add more if necessary)- over medium heat; add the paste and fry, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to move in one mass and oil can be seen at the edges. Remove from heat and allow to cool, then place mixture in a clean, dry jar and cover tightly. Always use a clean, dry spoon to extract amount required.


*If using coconut oil as a cooking-medium in conjuction with an electric grinder, it is helpful to heat the tamarind-paste and fish sauce before adding to keep the machine running smoothly, lest the fat solidify.



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After Halloween, Bitter Flowers…

November 2, 2007 at 6:47 PM (aubergines/brinjals/eggplant, bitter melon/gourd, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos)


I’m thankful that we are alive… that’s really the only thing I’ve ever learned from this, my favorite of all western holidays, a very pagan holiday with a long history that Christianity was never able to stamp out. I always take October 31st and November 1st off from work. Always always. And I enjoy it every year!

This one was a relatively quiet one for me. I didn’t attend the costume balls at any of the local clubs of the preceding weekend. I didn’t work on an elaborate costume of any kind. Instead, I enjoyed a quiet Wednesday afternoon carving 3 butternut squashes into small jack-o-lanterns, simultaneously doling out candy to trick-or-treaters when they knocked. There were more than usual this year, and let me tell ya: some of them were quite an eerie sight! The most memorable? A mother and her three young daughters- all dressed as witches, another mother and her two children dressed as Japanese spirits or something, and the next-door kid who donned a fantastic grim reaper (death represented as a black-hooded-and-caped skeleton wielding a scythe) costume, complete with remote-controlled blood that oozed down his face. Lovely. Have some candy.

Night fell, the holiday truly commenced, and I set my jack-o-lanterns outside to ward off any stray evil spirits. By 8 o’clock the trick-or-treaters became sparse, and because I was in a sociable mood and tired of being inside the house, decided to venture out to a local haunt. Halloween is one of the western gay community’s most popular holidays, and, although the weekend costume balls had come and gone, I felt sure that this particular Wednesday would still draw a crowd out into the night. I was right! It was nice to mingle with familiar faces, most of which I thankfully recognized!


I thought I’d also share a little recipe with you. My old friend May taught me this dish, so I assume this is a Hmong dish, but it could be Laotian, it could be Thai, it could very well be known and enjoyed throughout this region. Who knows- I’m not even sure of the proper name for this dish! I tend to call it Bitter Flowers, as this is what the finished dish reminds me of. Flowers. Very spicy and bitter flowers. If you are a person who would enjoy taking a piece of lemon-rind, sprinkling it with ground chiles and salt and devouring it with glee, then this dish is for you! It is essentially a stir-fry of bitter eggplants, those in the photo above being a popular type of these (nope, dey ain’t no pumpkins), but I know of two more: a type that is more egg-shaped with lengthwise ridges as well, and a teeny-tiny eggplant often called “pea eggplant” (as they look like large green peas). All three of these are remarkably bitter and widely available here all summer and autumn in the “Asian” markets and at the farmers’ markets. Heaps and heaps of them. And I usually make this dish a few times during the season, but this year I didn’t get to it until now, and barely at that as some of my stash had become soft. Luckily, most were still usable!

“Bitter Flowers”

1-2 T oil

fresh red chiles, seeded and sliced- I used 3, but to taste…

1 stalk of lemongrass, sliced very thinly at a diagonal (discard the dry outer leaves and use the paler portion near the root end)

Uh….a quantity of bitter eggplants– such as what would fit into a pair of cupped hands…sliced 1/8″ across into “flowers”

salt to taste (yep, salt…nam pla is not used in this dish- disturbs the colour scheme probably)

1)Heat the oil in a wok over med-low heat and add the chiles and lemongrass; stir-fry for about a minute, just enough to infuse the oil with flavour.

2)Add the bitter eggplant slices and stir-fry just until until a bit wilted, but not entirely soft; they should still retain their shape.

3)Remove from heat and add salt to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature with khao nyao (sticky rice) or any other rice on hand.


This is most refreshing in hot weather, or anytime that the appetite is a bit jaded. Perky, very perky. Oh. and before I forget: this simple recipe is also used for bitter melon.


May you all enjoy the bounty of the harvest, good health, and good spirits. Et men…er Amen. 😀



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Kaeng khiew wan gai (sweet green stew of chicken)

May 31, 2007 at 2:46 AM (animals, birds, chicken, chiles and other capsicums, coconut, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, jackfruit, Jihva entries, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos, various nuts like me, vegetables/ fruits)

    Oft referred to as the queen of Thai c-c-c…(must I say it? Nope!!) stews, kaeng khiew wan is lushly herbal and fragrant, and most provocatively pale-green from its infusion of krung kaeng khiew wan


    In honor of Jihva for Ingredients: June of 2007: Jackfruit, hosted by Bee and Jai of Jugalbandi, I have constructed a special kaeng khiew wan: I have paired green jackfruit with breast of chicken and added pieces of red capsicum, as well as shelled green peas and sliced mushrooms, to complement the colour scheme. It is finished with a handful each of torn kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil.

    I must be honest with you: this is the first time I have cooked with young, green jackfruit. I have tasted the ripe fruit, but it is a very different thing in vegetable form. Everything I had seen in the mature fruit is here miniaturized, with a unique texture, and a delicate flavour perhaps somewhere between green bean-pods and lychee nuts, or thereabouts! I have seen the swooning of other food-bloggers, but now I understand why; I was forced to purchase another can as I had nibbled my way through an entire one that was reserved for this dish! Thanks to all you swooners out there for introducing me to a new, and very likeable, vegetable.


    Somehow, the pallid-green pieces of jackfruit turned to an interesting shade of lavender while cooking, but it’s all in the fun…and while making the krung (masala paste) for this stew might be a bit arduous, the actual preparation of a Thai stew is as easy as breathing- honestly! I put the whole thing together while chatting with my mother and her long-time friend and never missed a beat! They even had fun sniffing and tasting some of the ingredients before they were tossed in. The end result, simmering away in my wok, reminds me a bit of a quiet lake with fallen leaves floating on the surface- nothing could be calmer or more relaxing.

Kaeng Khiew Wan Gai
(with green jackfruit, red capsicums, green peas and mushrooms)
(I don’t know the Thai for all of that! 🙂  )

2/3 C krung kaeng khiew wan (green curry paste)

1/2 C coconut cream, 3 C thin coconut milk, 1 C thick coconut milk (or use 2 tins of coconut milk, let it sit for awhile before opening and divide accordingly)*

4 chicken breasts, skin and bones removed, sliced in 1/4″-1/2″ strips (the bones can also be left in for more flavour, and although I often do this, I was in a filleted-kind-of-mood)

3 C green jackfruit, diced into wedges of about 1/2″ (I used two tins as this is all that is available here)

1 lg. red capsicum, diced into 1/4″ x 1″ pieces or sliced into 1/4″ strips

about 7 button or other mushrooms, sliced 1/8″-1/4″ wide

1/2 C shelled green peas

about 12 or so hot, red Thai chiles, stems intact, split along the length

4 T or so nam pla (fish water/sauce)

1 t sugar, or to taste

a handful of kaffir lime leaves, carefully torn on each half

a handful of Thai basil leaves

1)Heat the coconut cream over low heat in a wok or similar utensil and, stiring frquently, allow the oil to separate from the solids. It will just begin to smell roasted.

2)Add the krung and stir and fry until the raw smell disappears.

3)Add the chicken pieces and continue stirring, raise the heat a bit, until the chicken begins to change colour and is well-mixed with the paste.

4)Add the thin coconut milk and allow to come to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to very low and allow to simmer slowly.

5)When the chicken is just tender, add the mushrooms and continue simmering for about 5 minutes or so. If using fresh jackfruit, this should probably be added now as well.

6)Add the remaining vegetables and simmer, stirring now and then until they are almost cooked, but not soft.

7)Add the nam pla and sugar to taste.

8)Add the torn kaffir lime leaves and stir gently. Simmer for 2-3 more minutes.

9)Remove from heat, ladle into a serving dish, and, with a flourish of elegance, pour the thick coconut milk over the surface; use a spoon to swirl it if desired. Scatter over it the basil leaves as well, and serve with hot, steamed Thai jasmine rice, and accompaniments such as Thai cucumber salad and chiles-in-fish-sauce (these you’ll have to search for recipes yourself to try, for now, as I was too hungry and enraptured by the scent of this dish to bother…) 😀

This would serve at least 6 I think, 8 -10 with other dishes. Enjoy!


*When using tinned/canned coconut milk, the cream floats at the very top, the thick milk is just underneath, and the watery, thin milk sinks to the bottom.

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Krung Kaeng Khiew Wan

May 12, 2007 at 3:30 PM (aromatic mixtures, chiles and other capsicums, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos)


    This is a recipe that is absolutely integral to preparing one of my favorite dishes. At 19, while on a day-long expedition to Chicago with an art class from college, I was fortunate, when dinner-time came, not only to be persuaded to try Thai food, but to have chosen a dish from the menu made from this preparation as my introduction to the cuisine. I have never forgotten the flavour of that dish; few do who have ever tasted it. And, while store-bought pastes are readily available for this and other popular Thai dishes, none approach the flavour and aroma of the hand-made-from-scratch ones.

    Khiew means green. Wan is sweet. Krung* means a paste of fresh, aromatic things used to season a dish…. “Wet masala” or “masala paste” might be the best English translation of krung, as the word masala itself is becoming assimilated into the language… Kaeng is a more difficult word to translate. In my opinion, the best English equivalent would be a loose use of the word stew…..

    Kaeng is often translated as “curry”, but that seems to be a catch-all word in English for anything cooked in a well-seasoned liquid, or even something that happens to have a pinch of “curry powder” in it; I avoid the word for the most part. There are, in the Thai repetoire, dishes called kaeng cheud (sometimes spelled jeud), which are “clear stews” directly descended from the Chinese “clear soups”, as they are called in English. Also, there are dishes called prik kaeng, which are nearly-dry dishes cooked in a thick paste of mostly chiles. And to top off my argument, there is a paste and associated stew called (krung) kaeng kari……. “kari” seeming to follow suit with the British term “curry”, (of still-unknown exact extraction, but perhaps from the Tamil word kari); recipes for it contain a quantity of prepared “curry powder”…… Obviously then, in the Thai language, the word kaeng does not, in their minds, denote “curry”, as all of their food contains aromatic substances, naturally, for flavour and health….So, in lieu of all this, I use the word stew as the closest English word to kaeng.  Therefore, I will translate the Thai title of this preparation to “Masala paste for sweet, green stew” or “sweet, green stew flavouring paste”. Does that sound okay with you? You will find this paste used to make what is known on Thai menus simply as: “green curry”.

    Nomenclature aside, let us delve into the pleasures of making our own krung, shall we? This particular paste is always made using fresh green chiles, and also traditionally includes the addition of fresh chile-leaves. Spinach leaves, or any other well-coloured, mildly-flavoured green can be substituted, and often are, even in the best Thai restaurants. This paste, and subsequent stew made with it, is known for it’s beautiful, jade-green colour, delicate harmony of spices, and somewhat intense heat. It is often stated to be the most refined and sophisticated of the many Thai kaeng, and I have read that it is the favorite of the Thai Royal Court. Many, many recipes for this one, special paste exist; oddly, they are all in agreement with most of its components, but differ greatly in proportions. I am continually making notes with every attempt I make, and reading and listening to Thai cooks speak with obvious enthusiasm about it. I share with you what I have today.

    I implore you, when making this for the first time, to use a mortar-and-pestle; this gives the correct consistency and texture to the paste, as well as an unforgettable sensual experience coupled with a certain meditative quality often spoken of when performing repetitious tasks that require patience. Try to aim for every slice of the fine mincing to be 1 mm or less; your mincing skills will ultimately determine the smoothness of your finished paste. If you must use an electric wet-grinding machine, do add as little water as possible; be sure to allow a little extra time for frying (when the time comes to preparing a kaeng) to allow the extra water to evaporate before proceeding.

You will need:

Garlic, finely minced, 3 T

Coriander roots and/or stems, finely minced, 3 T

Chile-leaves or other greens, two handfuls, finely minced

A mix of mild and hot fresh, green chiles, seeded if you wish, and finely minced, about 2 1/2 C (I used two poblanos, 16 serranos, 6 long Thai chiles)

Coriander seed, whole 1 T

White peppercorns, whole, 1 t

Cumin seeds, whole, 1 t

Anise or fennel seeds, whole, 1/4 t

Turmeric, ground, 1/8 t

Nutmeg, ground, a pinch

Galanga**, about 1″, peeled and finely minced, 2 T

Lemon grass, 2 stalks, pale-crisp parts only, 2 stalks, finely minced, about 4 T

Kaffir lime peel/zest***, finely minced, 3 t

Shallots or onions, finely minced, 2 T

Kapi/ shrimp paste****, 2 1/2 t


1)Dry-roast the coriander seed and white peppercorns lightly, just until fragrant. Remove and let cool. Do the same with the cumin and anise seeds. Grind all of these together to a powder, add the turmeric and nutmeg; set aside.

2)Sprinkle the minced chiles with a little salt and mix well. Allow to stand for 30-45. Place these in a piece of cheesecloth or muslin and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Set aside, reserving the liquid in a separate bowl.

3)Wrap the kapi/ shrimp paste in a small piece of aluminum foil and roast over medium heat until fragrant, 4-5 minutes, flipping several times. Set aside to cool. 

4)In a large mortar, use the pestle to pound the minced garlic into a smooth paste. Add each ingredient in the exact order listed, adding the next only when a paste has been achieved with the preceding ingredient (the dry, roasted spices are added together obviously, and can be used to absorb any liquid that starts splashing at any moment before this). At the end, unwrap the kapi and blend this very well into the paste. Add the reserved chile-liquid.

This paste will keep for a week or two in the refrigerator, or longer in the freezer.

    As an afterthought, if anyone has any ideas about how to make the experience of hand-pounding this paste a little less sensual, I’m all ears!


*This is also sometimes called nam prik kaeng: chile-water [for] stew.

**Galanga or Kha is in the ginger family and has a unique flavour worth seeking out; it is always available fresh in Thai markets. If it is truly unattainable, substitute 3-4 T finely-minced ginger.

***Kaffir limes or magrut are available fresh in December-January in Thai markets in the U.S. The dried peel is available year-round from a few mail order companies. It has a very unique fragrance and flavour. Substitute with 4-5 t of regular lime zest if absolutely necessary.

****Vegetarians may substitute kapi with a slightly greater quantity of miso paste or mashed cubes of fermented bean-curd; skip the roasting in foil step.


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Nam Prik Wan kap Mamuang Khiew

May 3, 2007 at 10:00 AM (chiles and other capsicums, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, mangoes, Thailand/ Issarn/ Laos)

    I have no idea if that’s really what this is called in Thai, but it works until a better name can be found. You see, I keep forgetting to ask the right people when I have a chance… That title would translate appropriately to “Sweet chile-water with green mangoes”, of which I have very fond summer memories…

    In the traditional cuisine of Thailand and Laos, there is an endless variety of chile-waters, which is a bit like a relish around which entire meals can be served, including many vegetables and fruits, grilled or fried meats and fish, and balls of rice. Each chile-water, or nam prik as they are known in Thai, has a distinct balance of flavours that demand different accompaniments. I have tried a few; but this simple one was taught to me by a dear and long-time friend of mine who is Hmong by nationality. Besides being multi-lingual, having lived in both Laos and Thailand for a number of years before coming to the U. S., and operating a very popular “Asian”  grocery store,  she has also worked as a physician’s assistant, a school-teacher, and, when she very young, she helped her parents with the chores needed to maintain a flourishing, productive fruit-orchard. She has shared quite a few recipes with me over the years, and I bring this one out to share with you now.  

    On one particular day that I took a venture to her store, May was in the back, at a small, makeshift kitchen- complete with electric rice-cookers, where she would often make things to sell. She was busily cutting up semi-ripe mangoes and tossing them into a large bowl. Out of curiosity, I asked what she was making. She replied, “This is something that goes really fast in the summer. This will all be gone in just a few hours!” She was such a tease that way. She kept right on cutting the last few mangoes and, just as I was eyeing up some grilled sausages, she said, “You just watch; you can learn a new recipe that I know you will like a lot. It is much too hot for me, but I think you would enjoy this”.

    So, I watched. She took out a large, earthenware mortar and a wooden pestle, set it on the counter, and threw in a single clove of unpeeled garlic. Using the pestle gently, she managed to crack the skin of the garlic, and then reached in and removed the paper-like shards deftly with her other hand. In the next few seconds the garlic was paste. Then, she grabbed a jar containing a dark, fragrant substance and, with a serving-spoon, removed the tiniest smidge, perhaps the size of a chickpea, and shoved it off into the mortar using the tip of another spoon. This special preparation, I already knew, was kapi [kah-PEE], and is made of small, black-eyed shrimp that are ground into a paste, salted and fermented. It is quite potent, and usually used in small quantities to add a subtle, but rich undertone to many dishes. This new addition she pounded with the garlic paste until it was smooth. Then, she did something that I must admit shocked me a bit: she reached into a large plastic bag that was clearly quite full of small, dried bird-dropping chiles, and extracting as much as her hand could hold, released the lot into the vessel waiting with the paste! “Gosh May! All of those?!” I exclaimed. I knew full well from experience how hot just one of those chiles were…

    “Oh, yes…”, she said, “That is how most people like it. Hot enough to make a tiger cry…” Indeed! I let my eyes relax from their temporary widening and continued to watch, fascinated, as she turned them into a coarse powder before my eyes and with one of the spoons in her other hand, turned the mixture now and then. She took out a small tub of white sugar and scooped out a quantity- it was just a bit more- about 1 1/2 times- the amount in volume as the crushed chiles with its two potent accessories- and let this fall into the well, as well. Again she pounded and turned until it was well-combined. I thought she was done. I was hoping that this could be judiciously sprinkled on the mangoes. I was wrong. She reached for a bottle of nam pla- a thin, amber-coloured liquid strained from salted, fermented anchovies, and started pouring it in… I was really having my doubts about her cooking skills by this time. How could this concoction be at all edible? She had set her pestle aside, thank god, and was using just the spoon now to stir. All I could see was the red of chiles and their wan seeds floating about in sluggish liquid the consistency of thinned honey. With a brave lack of hesitation, she put the spoon to her lips and tasted it, without gasping or blinking. “Very good I think….” She then turned to look at me, “You wanna try?” I took a deep breath and stepped forward. This is going to kill me I thought. I took the spoon and tasted just the tiniest “sip”. No heat at all! It was as sweet as…..

    “Oh……..dear…..” I gasped. My lips, my mouth, my throat: all apparantly on fire. The sugar had dissolved and now a definite warmth was spreading across my face, radiating from the now-searing parts I used to talk with. My head felt light. My eyes watered. My mouth salivated to flush away this gastronomic furnace of a sauce or…whatever it was! She upturned the whole thing into the bowl of cut-up mangoes, even scraping out the traces that still clung, and mixed it up.

    “Normally we dip pieces of green mangoes or other green, sour fruit into this, but I do it this way so customers can take what they want and eat it on the way somewhere. Only one container for me to deal with too!” She was so nonchalant about it, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that my hair was about to melt, and continued, “I use these semi-ripe mangoes for this before they go bad; this way I still make money from them, and the people who don’t have time to make this always buy up all that I have. You come back in four hours. This will be gone!”

    I didn’t come back later that day. I asked her to ladle some into a container for me right away and with it headed home.


    Perfectly green, fresh mangoes are hard to come by here; once in a while I can catch a few at the Asian grocery stores before they’re snatched up. Most often I just search the mango piles at the large supermarkets for firm ones and call it good. They truly aren’t anything near splendid when ripe anyway! 😀 So, in this photo you will see semi-ripe mangoes, very much like the ones that May would use for this dish; my fellow Umreeka residers will understand I think, but if you do have access to green mangoes or green guavas or anything sour- or grilled fish and grilled meats or balls of sticky rice- all of them, I assure you, transform when dipped in this…. this, nam prik. There is no English word for the mischievous pleasure that I receive when offering this to the uninitiated, with the highest of hopes that they will chew and swallow before the sugar dissolves….

    Until then, sanuk will do…

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