Why It Works
- The dip gets depth of tomato flavor from charred plum tomatoes that are pounded into the chile paste base and sweet cherry tomatoes that are cooked until they burst to give the dip brightness and a saucy consistency.
- Toasting dried chiles before pounding in a mortar and pestle lends them smoky aroma.
- Umami-rich fermented soybean paste, fish sauce, and soy sauce reinforce the savory notes of the tomatoes.
Chile relishes or dips, called nam prik, are essential components to a well-rounded, multi-dish Thai meal. Served with an assortment of raw, blanched, or steamed vegetables, a spicy nam prik acts as a palate cleanser and refresher—the vegetables provide fresh crunch that complements the sinus-clearing power of the pounded chiles in the dip. Nam prik ong, found in northern Thailand, is a pork-based relish that balances the sweet acidity of tomatoes with savory fermented soybeans and shrimp paste, all of it accompanied by the heat from pounded dried chiles.
This recipe starts with dried chiles that are toasted in a dry wok and then pounded to a coarse paste in a mortar and pestle with lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste. Charred plum tomatoes, an unconventional addition that imparts extra depth of tomato flavor, are worked into the paste for smoky, sweet acidity.
The paste is cooked in hot oil to bloom the aromatics before ground pork is added to the wok. Once the pork is just cooked through, cherry tomatoes are stirred in and coaxed into bursting, giving the mixture a saucy consistency and bright sweetness, which is balanced by a mixture of soy sauce, fermented soybean paste, fish sauce, water, and a touch of sugar. The mixture is simmered until it thickens to a bolognese-like consistency and then allowed to cool to room temperature before serving.
The resulting relish is spicy, sour, sweet, and savory—ideal for dipping. We recommend serving nam prik ong with an assortment of raw vegetables, cooked jasmine or sticky rice, and some crispy pork rinds for good measure.
- For the Paste:
- 10 to 15 dried spur chiles (15g) (see note)
- 2 plum tomatoes (about 100g)
- 1 disc (15g) tua nao (optional, see note)
- 1 stalk lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced into rounds (about 10g sliced lemongrass)
- 10 small garlic cloves (30g)
- 5 small shallots (80g)
- 2 teaspoons (20g) Thai shrimp paste
- For the Seasoning Sauce:
- 1/2 cup (120ml) water
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15g) Thai fermented soybean paste
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) Thai thin soy sauce or light soy sauce
- Pinch sugar
- For the Pork:
- 1/4 cup (60ml) vegetable oil
- 1 pound (450g) ground pork
- 8 ounces (1 1/2 cups; 225g) cherry tomatoes
- For Serving:
- Assorted raw vegetables such as cucumbers, green cabbage, lettuce, Thai eggplant, long beans, and more, cut for dipping
- Assorted steamed or blanched vegetables such as winter squash, okra, and more, cut for dipping (optional)
- Hard-boiled eggs, halved (optional)
- Unflavored pork rinds (optional)
- Cooked jasmine or sticky rice
For the Paste: Place spur chiles in a dry wok or carbon steel or cast iron skillet, and toast over medium-low heat, turning occasionally, until chiles are fragrant and turn a deeper shade of dark red, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer chiles to a plate to cool slightly; wipe out wok or skillet and return to stovetop. Once cool enough to handle, remove stems from chiles and transfer to a granite mortar and pestle; set plate and mortar and pestle aside.
Meanwhile, place plum tomatoes in now-empty wok or skillet, and cook over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, until charred all over, about 5 minutes. Transfer tomatoes to now-empty plate and set aside to cool.
If using tua nao, use tongs to grab disc and hold about 2 inches above low flame on a gas burner. Flip disc every 5 seconds until tua nao is toasted to a hazelnut brown color, with little leopard spots all over on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes. Alternatively, you can toast tua nao under an electric or gas broiler, turning very frequently, or by using a culinary torch. Transfer tua nao to plate with tomatoes to cool; set aside.
Pound chiles in mortar and pestle to a coarse powder, 3 to 5 minutes. Add lemongrass and pound fine, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and shallots and pound to a coarse paste with a few large pieces remaining, 3 to 5 minutes. Add shrimp paste and tua nao (if using) and pound until well-incorporated. Add charred plum tomatoes and gently pound until broken down and incorporated into paste, about 2 minutes. Transfer paste to a small bowl and set aside.
For the Seasoning Sauce: In a small bowl, stir together water, fish sauce, soybean paste, soy sauce, and sugar until well-combined and sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
For the Pork: In a wok or 3-quart saucier, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chile-tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until paste is aromatic and turns dark red, about 3 minutes. Add the pork, stir to combine, and cook, using a wok spatula or wooden spoon to break meat up and scrape up any bits that stick to the bottom of the pan, until cooked through, about 4 minutes.
Add cherry tomatoes, stir to combine, and continue to cook until tomatoes begin to burst, 3 to 5 minutes. You can coax the tomatoes into bursting by pressing down on them with a wok spatula or wooden spoon, and you can decide whether to lightly crush all of them or leave some whole for juicy pops of tomato flavor in the finished dip. Stir in seasoning sauce and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until liquid is reduced to a saucy consistency and oil begins to separate from emulsion, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature, at which point nam prik ong can be served or refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 1 month.
For Serving: Transfer nam prik ong to a serving bowl and serve with assorted raw and steamed vegetables, hard-boiled eggs (if using), pork rinds (if using), and rice.
Dried spur chilies are a type of Thai chile known as prik cheefa haeng; they have a fruity, mild flavor, and are prized for the color they impart to curry pastes. They can be hard to come by in the US, but are sometimes available online. Alternatively, you can substitute puya or guajillo chiles, which are available at Central American markets.
Tua nao are dried fermented soybean cakes that provide an important savory quality to nam prik ong and many dishes found in Northern Thailand. To make tua nao, soybeans are cooked and left out to ferment before being ground into a paste, often through a meat grinder. The paste is portioned and pressed into circles using a piece of equipment similar to a tortilla press. The circles are then sun-dried and packaged for sale. To use tua nao discs, cooks blister them over charcoal grills or the flame of a gas burner before processing them into pastes, like the one in this recipe. Tua nao is often used as a vegetarian or vegan substitute for shrimp paste. It can be a difficult ingredient to source in the US—even in Bangkok it isn’t always readily available—and nam prik ong can be made without it. It can be purchased online here.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Nam prik ong can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, and frozen for up to 1 month. Bring to room temperature before serving.