Growing up, I always associated the noise generated by stir-frying clams with Thai chili jam as a signal that I needed to quit dilly-dallying and finish my homework.
The noise of something being pounded in a granite mortar? Eh, no hurry; Mom just got started. The noise of something being minced to a pulp on a wooden chopping block? That raw meat still needed to be shaped and cooked; plenty of time to goof off. Oh, but the unmistakable noise of clams in their shells clanking inside a lidded steel wok? That means you hurry the heck up with whatever you're doing, Leela, and help set the table for dinner—a very good one—is seconds away from being served. And it cannot wait.
Actually, my brain has been so programmed that I think a few recent projects delayed by my procrastination could have been finished sooner just by having someone shake a pot of clams within earshot. Oh, well.
Now that I think about it, Mom might have known this all along. This explains why she always made this on school nights when I had to finish my homework before dinner. Perhaps it was a coincidence? Either way, it's a perfect weeknight meal—few ingredients, very little prep time. You don't even need to do anything to the clams to prepare them for the wok. And the seasonings? Child's play.
This brings me to Thai chili jam—knowing how to use this powerhouse of an ingredient makes a Thai cooking novice look and feel like an expert. The moment you stick a jar of Nam Prik Pao in your kitchen pantry, the other Thai seasonings suddenly start exchanging sideways glances and murmuring nervously. But can anyone blame them for feeling insecure in the presence of the exceedingly versatile Thai chili jam?
This dish showcases what this composite ingredient can do. Its complex flavor creates an illusion of something that requires so much more seasoning ingredients than it does and is far more complicated to make than it is.
Well, strictly speaking, many seasoning ingredients actually go into this dish. It's just that the majority of them have already been incorporated into Nam Prik Pao. With it, you get tartness from the tamarind, saltiness from fish sauce, smokiness from dried red chilies, and additional flavors from garlic and shallots.
Then there's the juice that's released from the clams when combined with the smoky Nam Prik Pao, which becomes a delicious sauce that's greater than its individual components. With fresh Thai basil perfuming the whole thing, it's no wonder this dish is one of the most popular dishes at made-to-order food stalls.
And while some classics have succumbed to modernization (or bastardization, depending on whom you ask), stir-fried clams with Thai chili jam has remained generally unmodified as far as I can remember.