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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Nam Prik Pao: the chilli paste that sparks a terror alert


Did you hear it on the news about the chilli paste that caused a terror alert in London yesterday? A Thai restaurant in Soho was preparing Nam Prik Pao, a chilli paste (or chilli jam) condiment used in Thai cooking. The process involves deliberately burning the chilli, causing pungent fume that was mistaken for a chemical attack. The area was evacuated while emergency crew searched for the source. The search ended at a large pot of burning chilli pods.

I know there's hardly anything funny about terror alerts in this day and age, but you must admit this one is almost hilarious. I can just picture the Thai kitchen staff whispering amongst themselves – you think that was our chilli...nyah it couldn't be, it doesn't smell that bad...oh, wait, could it?

Anyway, I thought the occasion appropriate to post my Nam Prik Pao recipe. I've been holding out of you people for ages now. Not that it's a super secret or anything, it's just that when I make it I do it in such a huge quantity that my recipe wouldn't work for most of you. I have been meaning to make a small quantity and write up the recipe but I just haven't got around to it yet, despite the odd email from people who stumbled onto my old post about the first time I made it, imploring me for the recipe.

Anyway, I've got a whole bunch of emails yesterday from people who read the news on BBC (or most likely on Boing Boing), then googled the word Nam Prik Pao and ended up on my blog. I ran out of my supply a while ago and needed to make some anyway, so I did, in a small enough quantity this time, for those of you who don't eat it for breakfast like I do. Here it is. Try it and let me know how it goes for you.

Img_8479 Nam Prik Pao (น้ำพริกเผา)

75g whole dried chilli, substitute about 7 tbsp chili powder
100g garlic, about 2 medium heads
150g shallots, about 5 medium shallots
1 cup, 250ml oil
100g palm sugar, about 10 tbsp, chopped
2 tbsp Thai shrimp paste
1/3 cup tamarind pulp*
3 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 cup water

First you prepare the ingredients

Set a wok over medium heat. When the wok is hot, add the dried whole chilli. Stir vigorously, until the chilli pods begin to smoke and burn in places. (Be careful with this step or you might burn your eyes with the smoke, or worse yet, cause a terror alert or something.) Remove the chili from the heat. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Img_8495 Meanwhile, peel garlic and shallots and cut into thin slices. It may sound daunting but this is a step I always do by hand. Most food processor will turn the garlic into mush and not slices. Keep the garlic and shallot slices separated for now, they will have to be fried separately.

Add 1 cup of oil into a wok over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic slices. Keep stirring to make sure that all the garlic are cooked evenly. When the garlic turn light golden brown – don't let them turn too dark now as they will continue to cook a bit more off the heat - use a colander to fish out all the garlic flakes. Set aside.

Add the sliced shallots into the remaining oil in the pan. Cook until they are golden brown, stirring frequently to prevent hot spots. When the shallots are done, turn the heat off, fish the fried shallot flakes out with the colander and leave the oil in the pan. Set aside.

Img_8484_2 The burnt chilli pods should be cool enough to be handled by now. With a sharp knife, cut off the stem and then make a long slit lengthwise, split open the chilli pods and remove the membrane and seeds. Disgard the membranes and the seeds. Put the pods into a food processor or a spice grinder, process into fine powder. You can also do this in a mortar and pestle but it will take you a while. Set the chili powder aside.

Img_8521 Put the fried garlic and shallot flakes into a food processor and process into fine bits. This step is traditionally done in a mortar and pestle, but it's so much easier in a food processor. Transfer the garlic and shallots into a small bowl and set aside.

Prepare about 1/2 cup of tamarind pulp. (I've already explained how to prepare tamarind pulp in a post on Pad Thai.) You may not need to use the whole amount, but it's good to have a little extra.

Now you make the Nam Prik Pao


Set the wok with the remaining oil back over medium high heat until hot. Form the shrimp paste into a ball and flatten it slightly. Fry the shrimp paste in the hot oil for one or two minutes until fragrant.

Add five tablespoons of chilli powder, stir well to mix. Then, add the ground garlic and shallots, tamarind pulp, fish saunce and chopped palm sugar, mix well. Add the water, and stir well. Taste the mixture and adjust by adding more sugar, tamarind, or chilli as needed. The flavor should be sour, sweet, salty, and with a good smoky and spicy note at the end. (Despite what you might have heard, Nam Prik Pao is not supposed to be fiery hot.)

Turn the heat down to simmer and let the mixture simmer until reduce a little bit, to the texture of loose jam. Don't reduce it too much at this point as it will thicken as it cools.

Transfer the Nam Prik Pao into an airtight container – I love to use old jam jars for this. Nam Prik Pao will keep in the cupboard for a few months.

What does one do with Nam Prik Pao, you asked? Well, if you are like me you eat it spread like jam on white toast for breakfast. Make your significant other eat it too or it'll just be the end for you two. You can make Tom Yum Goong with it, or use it as a base for spicy stir-fries.


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