What Is Nam Prik Pao?

No one ingredient is more crucial to the flavor of authentic Thai food than nam prik. The term nam prik refers to seasoning pastes used in Thai cooking. The name translates literally to chili water. There are many varieties of nam prik with nam prik pao being one of the most popular. Nam prik pao is also sometimes called nam prik phao. It also benefits from the fact that its flavor profile is more appealing to Western tastebuds than other types of nam prik

While there is not much documentation concerning nam prik pao’s origin or the origin of any other nam prik, what is certain is that it is ancient. Its roots stretch far back into Thailand’s past, long before Chinese cooking styles altered the county’s food history. 

With nam prik pao specifically, there are certain things that we can tell about its history from the ingredients. For example, it relies heavily on the chil pepper. The chili tells us that its origin occurred at some point after Christopher Columbus returned from the New World with peppers. Those peppers would eventually be distributed throughout Europe and make their way to Asia. In Asia, the chile became a foundation ingredient that would revolutionize Chinese and Thai cooking.

Nam prik pao flavor profile

A truly authentic nam prik pao gets most of its flavor from chili peppers, firstly. The chili peppers and some of the other ingredients are dry roasted to intensify their taste.

Next, a nam prik should offer sweetness. That sweetness is why it is commonly described as a chili pepper jam. The sweet taste can come from palm sugar — which is what many Thai cooks use — but other kinds of sugar can work just as well. The use of sugar is another way that you can balance the heat. It will have tartness from the tamarind paste that shows up in most recipes.

One of the most important elements that separates nam prik pao from other hot sauces and that makes it a distinctly Thai condiment is the use of shrimp paste or dried shrimp and fish sauce. These seafood elements gives the nam prik pao a strong umami quality. Some Thai brands use more of the shrimp products and fish sauce, which results in a flavor that some Westerners may find unpleasantly fishy.

Is nam prik pao spicy?

Nam prik pao can be spicy, but the heat level can be altered to suit your preference. While Thai food is famous for its peppery bite, not all dishes are searingly hot. You can use different kinds of chili peppers to increase or decrease the heat of a homemade nam prik pao to taste. You can also include or omit the hot pepper membranes to further adjust the spiciness.

Common uses for nam prik pao

The different nam priks are commonly used as dipping sauces, including nam prik pao. Thai people use it as a dipping sauce for fish, vegetables and pork rinds. Like other nam priks, nam prik pao makes a great topping for rice. You can add it to a stir-fry or use it on grilled meats. Nam prik pao works well in soups and stews as well as in fried rice, and some cooks have even been known to use it in their salad dressings.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 5, 2019 to include new content.
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