My Thai: Shrimp Fried Rice with Nam Prik Pao and Crispy Lemongrass

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[Photographs: Leela Punyaratabandhu]

You've seen Nam Prik Pao (also known as Thai chili jam) used in a stir-fry, such as Stir-Fried Clams with Thai Chili Jam before. Here's another way this super versatile ingredient can be used.

The crispy lemongrass is not necessary in this fried rice; the main seasoning, Nam Prik Pao, is already plenty flavorful and complex. But the lemongrass introduces another layer of herbal flavor to the mix. Also, my mother had a habit of keeping a batch crispy lemongrass in the pantry which she sprinkled on a lot of things; it was her secret ingredient. And now I'm doing the same.

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The key to crispy lemongrass is to slice the lemongrass as thin as possible. Having a very sharp knife is a must. Also, be sure to use only the tender parts at the base of the lemongrass. Once you trim off the end (which you should do) and start slicing, you'll see the purple rings inside the lemongrass stalk. That's great; keep slicing. The moment those purple rings disappear, quit. Going beyond this point will put you in the tough and woody territory. For this application, it's important to use the tender part of the lemongrass stalk. For other dishes wherein lemongrass is used for infusion but not eaten (Tom Kha Gai or Tom Yam) or pounded into a curry paste, you can get away with using the tougher parts. So don't throw away the green parts; freeze them for later use.

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The other important thing when it comes to making crispy lemongrass is that you want to add the lemongrass slices to the oil when it's at room temperature. In other words, the oil and the lemongrass should be heated up together. Also, be sure to use medium-low to low heat as you want to lemongrass to brown up very gently and very slowly. That way, the end product comes out of the pan crispy and stays that way for a long time. You won't get that from throwing the lemongrass into a hot oil.

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The recipe is easy. I mean, it's fried rice. This one is particularly easy because Nam Prik Pao helps add a bunch of complex flavors. Everything made with Nam Prik Pao tastes like you've just slaved over the stove for hours when the fact is anything but. No wonder Thai restaurants love using it so much.

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