A Thai Kitchen Secret – Nam Prik Pao

thai-chile-paste-jpgNam Prik Pao is a chilli paste made from roasted red chillis, garlic, shrimp paste and fish sauce.  It is the key ingredient to Tom Yum soup, pad thai and many iconic Thai dishes.

The consistency is jam like and indeed I’ve seen references to it being used as spread on bread. I haven’t tried but I suspect this is for hardier folks than me.

In my Thai cooking class I was surprised to see the instructor putting a teaspoon in almost all the dishes.  Later when I looked at the recipe hand-outs, it was often missing from the ingredients list.  An oversight? or maybe a ploy to hide the secret weapon for authentic dishes?   Well, the secret is out. I have my personal stash at home.


Khao Soy

IMG_20151029_132913832_HDR (2)Khao Soy is a  coconut flavoured curry noodle soup.  It is a regional dish, found in northern Thailand.   I think it must have some Chinese roots since I’ve tasted similar dishes (without the curry) from Malaysia and Singapore.  But then, isn’t that true of all noodle soups in this region?

Traditional Khao Soy is made with a mixture of fresh egg noodles and fried noodles. In Chang Mai its easy to find both in the local wet market. The fried noodles give a pleasant contrast in texture.  But for my home made version, I used fresh bean sprouts. It’s healthier and provides the necessary crunch.

The key ingredient that makes this dish unique is the addition of yellow curry powder to the wet curry paste. My Chang Mai guide called it masala.  In Singapore I used Babas meat curry powder, but any pre-made yellow curry powder should work.

Khao Soy

IMG_20151029_124229137200g chicken, sliced
2 tbs red curry paste
1 tbs curry powder
1/2 cup coconut cream
1/2 onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1 tbs Thai chilli paste
1 tbs fish sauce (to taste)
3 tbs sugar (to taste)
Juice from one lime
2-3 fresh coriander bunches, sliced
2-3 green onions, sliced
200g fresh egg noodles, blanched
100g fresh bean sprouts

Fry curry paste & curry powder with 1 tbs cooking oil. Add coconut cream, fish sauce, chilli paste and 1/4 cup water. Bring to boil before adding chicken to cook. Add noodles and bean sprouts. Adjust flavour with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilli paste. Remove from heat and add coriander and green onion.

Thai Red Curry

Whenever I travel I try to find a cooking class. Singaporean, Malay, Thai, Viet and Khmer people  all share a common love of curries and invariably, the  classes have me cutting up fresh ingredients and pounding them with mortar and pestle.  The ingredients change according to dish but sometimes it feels like I’m learning the same thing over and over again.  Call it rempeh or curry paste, there is always chillis and garlic. Variations include shallots, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, shrimp paste, herbs and dry roasted spices.

In my last class I had an Ah-HA moment.  You can make different dishes with the same paste.   A red curry paste wasn’t only for a Red Curry dish.  It could be used for  a Jungle Curry,  a Yellow Curry, a Phanang Curry, a  soupy Khao Soy, a slurpable Spicy Glass Noodles. The cooking technique is almost always the same.  The difference is in the additional ingredients

After my last trip to Chang Mai (November 2015) I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of cooking Thai.  It begins with this Red Curry Paste from the Siam Rice Cooking school.

Red Curry Paste

Curry Paste ingredient

10 dried red chillis, de-seeded, soaked and chopped
10 (3 tbs) shallots, chopped
10 (2 tbs) garlic, chopped
1 inch (1 tbs) galangal, chopped
1 tbs lemongrass, chopped
1 tbs Thai shrimp paste
1 tbs Kaffir lime rind,chopped
1 tbs Thai ginseng, chopped
1 tbs coriander roots, chopped (optional)

All proportions are approximate.

Blend or pound into a fine paste.  If using a blender , add a couple teaspoons of cooking oil to emulsify.

Massaman Curry

Massaman Beef CurryMassaman Curry is different from Rempeh in that it adds spices – coriander, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise and Belachan (shrimp paste) – to Rempeh’s chili/garlic/shallot paste.

Dry roasting the spices and then grinding it in a stone mortar is surprisingly easy. Plus the aroma of freshly roasted spices is lovely. Not so can be said of the shrimp paste. Belacan looks and smells awful. Bad. Punch in the gut bad. However, it adds an incredible flavor to the curry, which combined with the red chilli’s, garlic , shallots and galangal transforms the dish.

The first time I made the Massaman curry with beef, potatoes and onions, I was knocked over by the brightness of the flavor.  All I could think was “OMG this is good!” The aroma of the roasted spices, the pungency of the chillis and the sweet back tones of coconut, tamarind and sugar delivered an amazingly complex dish.

Massaman curry paste ingredients
Belacan shrimp paste, galangal, garlic, cumin, coriander, green cardamon, cinnamon bark, star anise, nutmeg, cloves, dried red chilis, shallots

Dry Spice mix

1 tbs coriander

1 tsp cumin
1 stick cinnamon bark, approx 4 cm
3 cloves
1 cardamon pod
1 pc star anise
1 tsp nutmeg, grated

Dry roast each of the spices and then grind into a powder with the mortar and pestle

Wet Paste mix

15 dried red chilli’s
4 – 6 shallots, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 inch galangal, chopped
½ tsp belacan (dried shrimp paste)

If the chillis are large enough, deseed them by rubbing together to loosen the seeds before cutting in two and shaking them out. Otherwise, remove after soaking the dried chillis in water for about 15 minutes. Thoroughly rinse and strain the deseeded chillis.

Dry roast the belacan over an open flame.

Place all ingredients in the blender with a bit of water (approx. 1/3 cup) and blend until smooth. Mix in the ground spices.
Makes about a cup of curry paste.

Massaman Beef Curry - IngredientsMassaman Beef Curry
600g Beef – sirloin, thinly sliced
3 large potatoes, cubed
2 onions, sliced
1 cup coconut milk
1 tbsp tamarind paste , mixed with 1/3 cup warm water
3 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
¼ cup fish sauce (or to taste)

3 tbsp Massaman curry paste (or to taste)
1 star anise
½ cinnamon stick

Fry curry paste in wok/skillet
Add beef to curry paste and brown. Add onions
Add rest of ingredients, adjusting flavors to taste
Add potatoes with additional liquid, as needed
Bring to boil and then simmer for 45mins until meat is tender and potatoes cooked through. Serve with steamed white rice.