The first Thai cookbook I ever bought was Simply Thai Cooking by Wandee Young, which I gave as a gift to my husband. (At the time, it was the first edition!) It remains a go-to book for both of us when we want a weeknight Thai dinner, without having to go to the trouble of pounding out a homemade curry paste or making our own coconut milk.
One ingredient that comes up regularly is referred to in the book as “chili paste,” a store-bought product whose ingredients were long a mystery to me. We usually buy the Taste of Thai brand, which is labelled “roasted red chili paste”. When it, frustratingly, became unavailable for a brief period, we stopped cooking the recipes that called for it; we just couldn’t seem to find the same product from other manufacturers, despite scouring the shelves at our local Asian groceries.
When I eventually picked up a copy of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, I noticed there was a recipe in it for a condiment called nam prik pao, or Thai roasted chile paste. Armed with the Thai name for it, I cross-referenced it against David Thompson’s Thai Food, which includes a recipe under the moniker “chilli jam.” I filed both recipes away in my “to make someday” file.
Then, while I was in Ottawa in March, I encountered chilli jam again at Sidedoor. Tasting it, I was blown away by its complexity and balance. I knew I needed to make it soon.
When I got home, I compared the recipes in Hot Sour Salty Sweet and Thai Food; the former consists solely of chilis, shallots, garlic, oil and fish sauce, while the latter adds dried shrimp, galangal, shrimp paste, sugar, and tamarind. Working from the taste-memory of the chilli jam at Sidedoor, I knew I wanted the umami element from the dried shrimp and shrimp paste. The recipes in Thai Food are always pretty complex, but I was buoyed by the headnote, which commented that it keeps indefinitely. So I cleared most of a weekend day, and made a batch.
After being separately deep-fried, the shallots, garlic, dried shrimp, chilis and galangal are blended in a food processor with the shrimp paste and some of the fryer oil, then the whole thing is seasoned with the tamarind, sugar and fish sauce and cooked down to an unsurprisingly jammy consistency. This time-consuming process left me with about a litre of delicious nahm prik pao. This stuff fires on all cylinders – it’s sweet, tangy, salty, a little spicy, and provides a huge hit of umami. (It’s still not as good as Sidedoor’s, though.)
One of my favourite uses for it so far has been as an addition to Thai-style fried rice: heat up some oil in a wok, add some minced garlic and a small spoonful of chilli jam and fry until the garlic just starts to brown. Throw in some sliced pork (or not) and brown it, then add some cooked and chilled rice and stir-fry the whole thing until the rice is hot and tender, and the grains separate. Add some pieces of green onion and season with a little fish sauce, then serve it. You can put a fried egg on top – everything is better with a fried egg on top – and garnish with some lime wedges, cilantro, cucumber slices, and hot sauce made by steeping some sliced fresh chilis in fish sauce.