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…