Nahm prik pao, or "roasted chili paste," is a rustic, spectacularly tasty condiment made from easy-to-find ingredients. The trick to this simple recipe is to keep the herbs on the pleasing side of burnt, while allowing them to blossom into the robust, charred concoction beloved by Thais. Traditionally this preparation is made by roasting the chilies, shallots, and garlic in or over the feisty coals of charcoal stoves used in upcountry kitchens. If you have a lively bed of coals or a good grill, roast or grill the chilies, shallots, and garlic to a handsome darkness, turning with tongs or chopsticks before they incinerate. Use the chili paste in Tome Yum Soup with Mushrooms and Tofu, Zucchini and Tofu in Roasted Chili Paste, and Crispy Rice Cakes with Roasted Chili Paste.
In a wok or a small, heavy skillet, dry-fry the chilies over medium-low heat until they darken and become fragrant and brittle, 3 to 5 minutes. Shake the pan and stir frequently as they roast. Remove from the heat and transfer to a plate to cool.
Increase the heat to medium and dry-fry the shallots and garlic, turning them occasionally, until they are softened, wilted, and blistered, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to the plate to cool.
Stem the chilies and shake out and discard most of the seeds. Crumble the chilies into small pieces. Trim the shallots and garlic, discarding the peel and root ends, and chop coarsely. Combine the chilies, shallots, and garlic in a mini processor or blender and pulse to a coarse paste, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Add 1/4 cup of the vegetable oil and grind to a fairly smooth paste. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
Pour the remaining 1/4 cup oil into the wok or a skillet. Place over medium heat until a bit of the paste added to the pan sizzles at once, about 1 minute. Add the ground chili paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the paste gradually darkens and releases a rich fragrance, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.
Combine the sugar, tamarind, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl and stir well. Add this mixture to the cooled chili paste and stir to combine. The paste will be quite oily, and must be well stirred before each use. Transfer to a jar, cap tightly, and refrigerate for up to 1 month. Use at room temperature in recipes or as a condiment.
Makes about 1-1/4 cups.
Note: If you have a heavy mortar and pestle, you can bring this sauce together in the traditional way. Coarsely chop the roasted chilies, shallots, and garlic and place in tile mortar Using the pestle, grind and pound them to a coarse mush, using a spoon to scrape down the sides of the mortar, as you work. Add a little of the oil and continue pounding and grinding to smooth out the mixture until you have a fairly smooth paste. Continue as directed, frying the paste in the oil and then seasoning it with the sugar, tamarind, soy sauce, and salt.
This sauce has two incarnations, one as a pure chili-shallot-garlic paste roasted in oil, and the other as a rich, tangy chili-tamarind paste softened by palm sugar's voluptuous kiss. You can stop after frying the paste and have the former, or complete the recipe and have the latter. Either will work in recipes in which nahm prik pao is used. You can purchase this condiment in Southeast Asian grocery stores, but check the ingredients list. In its traditional form, the seasonings added after frying include fish sauce and dried shrimp. If you adore fiery food, add more chilies up to 1/2 cup. If you want to cut the heat, you can reduce the amount of chilies to about 2 tablespoons coursely chopped chilies, about 1/4 ounce. Handle tile chilies with care, avoiding touching your eyes and other tender areas for a few hours after handling them. When you are roasting the chilies, the fragrant smoke from file pan may make you cough a little.
Place the sticky, gooey tamarind pulp in a small bowl and add the warm water. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes, poking and mashing occasionally with your fingers or a spoon to break the sticky lump into pieces and help it dissolve.
Pour the tamarind pulp and water through a fine-mesh sieve into another bowl. Use your fingers or the back of a spoon to work the tamarind pulp well, pressing the softened pulp against the sieve to extract as much thick brown liquid as you can. Scrape the outside of the sieve often to capture the thick purée that accumulates there. Discard the pulp, fibers, and seeds that have collected in the sieve and thin the tamarind liquid with water as needed until it is about the consistency of pea soup or softly whipped cream.
Use as directed in recipes, or seal airtight and refrigerate for up to 3 days. It sours and sharpens as it stands, so if it has stood for several days, taste it and adjust the flavor with some sugar.
Makes About 1 Cup
Real Vegetarian Thai
by Nancie McDermott
Chronicle Books, $11.95
256 pages; May 12, 1997
Recipes and photos reprinted by permission.
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