Why It Works
- Charring the chiles and aromatics under the broiler lends smoky complexity to the paste.
- Cooking nam prik pao down in oil to a jammy consistency builds depth of flavor by coaxing out fat-soluble aromas, and removes moisture, which helps extend refrigerator shelf life.
- Palm sugar adds complex butterscotch-like sweetness, which is balanced by savory dried shrimp.
Nam prik pao is versatile pantry staple in Thai cuisine, a thick, savory, sweet, and slightly spicy paste—or jam or relish, if you prefer—primarily made from dried spur chiles, garlic, shallots, and dried shrimp. It's used as a flavor-boosting condiment for soups, stir-fries, salads, and fried rice. You can also used it as a spread for toast and sandwiches.
The "pao" in nam prik pao means to burn or grill, and it refers to the important step of charring the chiles, shallots, and garlic to develop their flavor before they're processed into a paste along with the shrimp, tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, and oil, and then cooked down in more oil.
Nam prik pao has a distinct flavor. It's quite strong, which means that it isn't used "all the time." But because nothing else tastes quite like it, when a dish needs it, it's irreplaceable.
Like a prik gaeng, nam prik pao is traditionally pounded into a paste by hand in a mortar and pestle. This time-consuming process is one of the main reasons why most Thai people prefer to purchase jarred nam prik pao. Some homemade versions even call for frying shallots and garlic separately, rather than charring them, before processing them into the paste. I prefer a more streamlined approach in which I quickly char the ingredients under the broiler (traditionally the ingredients are dry-roasted in a wok or cooked over an open flame). I then use an electric spice grinder to pulverize the dried chiles and a food processor to bring the paste together in a matter of a couple of minutes.
I transfer the paste to a saucepan or wok, and cook it down with a generous amount of oil until the sugars begin to caramelize and the mixture takes on a jammy consistency. It’s important to take your time with this part of the process; as the relish cooks in the ample quantity of oil, fat-soluble aromas in the pastes's ingredients are coaxed out, and the flavors deepen and meld together. The flavorful oil that rises to the top is itself a prized ingredient known as nam man prik pao, and it's bottled and sold like a chile oil.
The resulting paste strikes the perfect balance between savory and sweet, with background heat from the chiles. This stuff also lasts “forever” when stored properly in the fridge. And by that I mean I’ve never seen nam prik pao go bad, even after an open jar was discovered in the back of my fridge after who knows how long.
The process provided in the recipe uses a combination of a coffee grinder for dry ingredients, and a food processor for the final paste, though an immersion blender works in place of a food processor, too, and if you’re feeling old-school, you can certainly use a granite mortar and pestle. However you prepare it, the consistency of the paste doesn't need to be ultra fine, as the shallots and garlic will effectively dissolve during the cooking process, though the chiles do need to be ground finely in a spice grinder, as they don't break down with cooking.
Like other umami-rich condiments, once you make a batch of nam prik pao, you’ll find yourself adding a spoonful of it to everything, from Thai salads to avocado toast (one of my personal favorites).
- 1 3/4 ounces (50g) dried spur chiles, stemmed (see note)
- 7 ounces (200g) shallots, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 10 small shallots)
- 3 1/2 ounces (100g) garlic cloves, unpeeled (about 20 medium cloves from 2 heads of garlic)
- 1/4 cup (30g) dried shrimp, medium or large size, roughly chopped if large
- 1/4 cup (60ml) tamarind paste, plus extra as needed
- 2 3/4 ounces (80g) palm sugar, finely chopped (about 3 tablespoons; see note), plus extra as needed
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50ml) fish sauce, plus extra as needed
- 1 teaspoon (5g) fermented shrimp paste, such as Tra Chang (optional)
- 3/4 cup (180ml) neutral oil, such as vegetable or safflower, divided
Adjust oven rack to 6 inches below broiler element and preheat broiler on high. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread dried chiles in an even layer on baking sheet and broil, keeping an eye on them at all times to make sure they don’t burn, until chiles are charred in some spots, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Broilers vary in strength so cooking times will as well; be sure to check frequently. Flip chiles over and continue to broil on second side until charred in spots, 15 to 30 seconds. Transfer chiles to a plate and set aside to cool.
Arrange shallots and garlic in an even layer on now-empty baking sheet and broil until shallots are charred in some spots, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a spatula, flip garlic and shallots and continue to broil until charred in spots on second side, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer baking sheet to a heatproof surface and allow garlic and shallots to cool slightly. Once garlic is cool enough to handle, peel cloves; discard skins. Set aside.
Working in batches, transfer charred chiles to a spice grinder and grind into a fine powder; transfer ground chiles to the bowl of a food processor and set aside. Add dried shrimp to spice grinder and grind until broken down and fluffy, 15 to 30 seconds. Transfer to food processor bowl with ground chiles.
Add shallots, garlic, tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce, and shrimp paste (if using) to food processor bowl. With processor running, add oil 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time until a fine paste forms (you won’t need to add all of the oil to achieve a smooth consistency), 1 to 2 minutes. Stop processor to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Alternatively, place all ingredients except oil in an immersion blender jar or another tall-sided container that just fits the head of your immersion blender. Add 3 tablespoons (45ml) oil, and blend, adding more oil, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until a fine paste forms.
Transfer paste and remaining oil to a 3-quart saucier or wok. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until paste turns deep dark red and reduces to a thick, jammy consistency, 12 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more tamarind, palm sugar, or fish sauce as needed. If adding more palm sugar, continue to cook until sugar is fully dissolved, about 1 minute. When tasting, spread the nam prik pao on a cracker or piece of bread, rather than just on its own, to get a better gauge for seasoning. Transfer to an airtight container (do not cover) and set aside to cool. Once cooled to room temperature, nam prik pao can be used or covered and refrigerated for future use.
Spice grinder, food processor or immersion blender, 3-quart saucier or wok.
Dried spur chiles 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 or online.
Palm sugar can be found in Southeast Asian markets, as well as some nationwide supermarkets like H Mart, and also online. If you can’t find palm sugar, for this recipe you can substitute with an equal amount of light brown sugar.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Nam prik pao can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 6 months.