If you're anything like me, when you first taste nam phrig noom, the smoky, garlicky, roasted chili dip from Northern Thailand, it's gonna blow your mind.
I knew that there were holes in my knowledge of Thai food, but still, I thought I at least got it, in the way that somebody who's had a great burger, a great pizza, and great barbecue can sort of wrap his head around American food. I knew my laaps from my som tums. My massamans from my green curries. My Issan from my Central and my Southern. I knew the proper etiquette—you use the fork to push food onto your spoon, then the spoon to deliver it to your mouth—and even knew enough to not out myself as a tourist by asking for chopsticks at anywhere but a noodle restaurant. Fish sauce, shrimp paste, and dried chilies occupy a proud spot in my pantry right next to the salt and the olive oil.
I'd read the books, I'd eaten my way through regional Thai restaurants in all the right neighborhoods. I'd stuffed my face with everything I could find in Bangkok. I knew all about the hot, sour, bitter, sweet, and salty quinfecta. I really thought I understood it.
Boy was I wrong.
"The food of Northern Thailand may well be Thailand's most traditional and ancient cuisine."
It wasn't until our plane touched down in Chiang Mai and my wife Adri and I had our first Northern Thai meal that I realized that my entire Thai food universe was only partially complete. The food of Northern Thailand may well be Thailand's most traditional and ancient cuisine. The Thais still call it Lanna food—many dishes have been served since the Lanna Kingdom had its heyday between the 13th and 18th centuries.
Here were dishes that threw the whole hot-sour-salty-sweet balance out of whack. Bold bitter spices and rich earthy flavors dominate. Dried chilies were everywhere. Black cardamom, dried rhizomes, and prickly ash littered the spice markets. Salads came flavored with pork blood, and raw sausages were left to ferment until as funky as a ripe cheese. These were the kinds of dishes I'd had glimpses of at Andy Ricker's Pok Pok—the only restaurant I know of in the country attempting to introduce an American audience to this highly regional cuisine—but had never experienced in their native glory.
The first thing I did after that meal was take to the internet in search of a local guide who could show me the ins and outs of the cuisine. I found that guide in a man named Arm, the sole proprietor, instructor, and cook at Small House Thai Cooking, and I couldn't have asked for a better mentor.
Chiang Mai very quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world, not for its food, but for its genuine warmth, relaxed pace, and, well, okay, for the food too. If you ever find yourself there—and I highly suggest you get your butt over there sooner rather than later—be sure to set aside a day to work with Arm.*
*And tell him I sent you!
The recipes I'll be exploring and sharing with you this week are all based on lessons gleaned from Arm, modified to suit my own personal tastes, and altered to work in a Western kitchen.
Nam Phrig Noom
Nam phrig is the generic term for chili dips in Thailand, and they come in a bafflingly wide range of flavors. Think of it sort of as Thai salsa. It may vary region to region, household to household, or cook to cook, but whatever the incarnation, it's a regular feature at almost every meal.
Intensely smoky and garlicky with a touch of sweetness and a rich, savory backbone, nam phrig noom is the brooding hulk of the nam phrig family. It also happens to be one of the simplest to make, and the one that is, oddly, most familiar to Americans. At least Americans from a certain part of the country.
If you've traveled through the American Southwest—particularly the small town of Hatch, New Mexico—in the height of summer, you'll already be familiar with smoky, green aroma of nam phrig noom. The chilies used to make it are remarkably similar to the particular type of Anaheim chili grown in Hatch (though really, any hot Anaheim pepper will do for this recipe).
As Arm and I roasted chilies, shallots, and garlic over an open flame and their blackened skins blistered and popped with puffs of aromatic steam, I couldn't shake the thoughts of the braised chicken with chile verde I'd been working on last summer. I promised Arm that when I find the chance to get back to Chiang Mai, that we'd cook some chile verde together.
Once the vegetables were blackened and peeled, Arm smeared a spoonful of shrimp paste over a banana leaf and held it briefly over the flame to lightly develop its flavor. All of the ingredients went into a deep mortar and pestle along with a touch of cilantro, where we got to work pounding them with a pinch of salt into a thick, chunky paste.
Arm tasted the paste, adjusted the seasoning with a bit more salt, and served it alongside boiled eggs, steamed pumpkin, raw long beans, and cooked and raw Thai eggplants, along with a big basket of fried pork rinds. Adri and I dug in heartily. These kinds of bitter and smoky flavors weren't something I'd come to expect in Thai food, but it was remarkably delicious (and made me think that perhaps next time I should serve boiled eggs and vegetables with my Mexican salsas instead of tortillas).
Back home, the process for making nam phrig noom is nearly identical. If you can get your hands on the long green capsicums they use in Chiang Mai (they're often sold at Chinese markets), you should use them. If not, Anaheim chilies work very well.
Proper blackening of the chilies and alliums is essential for hitting that smoky/bitter flavor. Grilling the chilies over a gas burner works well, but grilling garlic and shallots is a little more difficult without a fine-meshed grill grate like the one Arm had. Instead, I found it much easier to do all the vegetable at once with a combination of a cast iron skillet and a broiler.
Taking a cue from my skillet-broiler pizza recipe, I preheated a cast iron pan over high heat for a few minutes before adding the vegetables and sliding the whole thing under a preheated broiler. The vegetables blacken and char in just a few minutes.
After they blacken, I seal them under foil in a bowl to let them steam, which makes the burnt skins easier to remove.
While the vegetables steam, I spread the shrimp paste onto a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil and broil it just until aromatic, though if you can't find shrimp paste (or don't feel like ordering it online, regular fish sauce will do in a pinch.
Some recipes out there for nam phrig call for pulsing the ingredients in a food processor, and I'd love to be able to tell you that it comes out the same, but really, it doesn't. A food processor just doesn't cut it. Or, more precisely, it cuts it too well. The best nam phrig should have textural contrast built right into it, its flavors extracted through rigorous pounding. As Daniel once demonstrated on pesto, pounding and chopping simply aren't the same thing.
That's not to say that you can't process your roasted vegetables and get a decent tasting sauce, only that there'd still be a ton of un-tapped potential in that bowl. A heavy-duty granite number is a good choice for pounding, grinding spices, and making pastes. And don't worry—we'll be getting to plenty more recipes that use that same mortar and pestle should you be worried that you're purchasing a uni-tasker.
The most basic nam phrig noom finishes just about there—chilies, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, and that's it. It might just be my mental connection with the flavors of chile verde, but I personally like to add a squeeze of lime juice to mine, just for a tiny hit of freshness to peek out from behind the smoky, bitter flavors. It's especially tasty when you pair it up with some crispy fried pork rinds.
In some countries I might face a firing squad for suggesting that a recipe can be altered from its purest form. But if there's one thing I learned about the folks in Chiang Mai, it's that they're relaxed and groovy pretty much 100% of the time. Go ahead and alter away.