A Dash of This, A Dash of That: A Food Guide to Thailand’s Condiments
One might think that a distinct cuisine such as the one in Thailand, doesn’t need any improvements or additions. But if you have spent some time here then you know that a visit to a restaurant would not be complete without the obligatory assortment of condiments.
You see, in Thai food, it’s all about the five different flavors – sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter. It takes years of practice to learn how to create the right balance between all of them. The condiments are there to bring out a certain taste or to complement each other to some extent.
For more information about the harmony of flavors in Thai food, we recommend checking out this blog post. It’s better if we leave the experts to do the in-depth talkin’. We will just stick to the different types of condiments to spice up your Thai food.
The Usual Suspects
The first thing you see once you sit down on your table is a set – usually made of plastic – containing four condiments. For the sweetness you have sugar; for a sour taste there is something based on either lime or vinegar; for the spiciness you will find dried chilli flakes or chillies in oil; and as a substitute for salt the Thais use a salty fish sauce (nam pla or prik nam pla if it contains chillies). Sometimes there is a bottle of soy sauce as well.
These are the four core condiments and with them, you can individualize each dish to your personal preferences. Personally, I like a good teaspoon of chili flakes with my Thai food except, maybe, mango sticky rice. But, hey, it’s a free country so do whatever you like.
About Broth, Peanuts and A Famous Northern Curry
A staple of every Thais diet – if you can call it that – is the classic stir-fried rice (Khao Pad). Now, some restaurants include a small bowl of broth with it. However, you will quickly realize that it’s rather bland. See it as a DIY soup where you can use the above-mentioned condiments to create something to your own liking.
Another Thai classic is the stir-fried noodles (Pad Thai) and here you get a small portion of grounded peanuts and a slice of lime. Sometimes the peanuts are sprinkled over the noodles, but more often there are piled next to them. It adds a sort of dry flavor and the crunchiness is a welcome addition to the oily noodles. Again, it’s all about the harmony.
While we are on the topic of crunchiness, you may be familiar with Khao Soi, the curry-flavored soup with crispy egg noodles. It is wildly popular in Northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, but you can find it in selected restaurants all over Thailand as well. Here you will be presented with an assortment of green vegetables such as shallots, pickled cabbage, cilantro, and green onions. They come in separate smaller cups and, once again, you can add as much or as little as you like.
Dips ‘n Sauces
What would a quick snack from the street food vendor next door be without its complementing sauce? A bit boring, that’s what it would be, in our opinion. The go-to dip for anything from chicken to spring rolls and fritters is the sweet chili sauce called nam jim kai. It is red in color, has a syrupy consistency and is made of sugar, vinegar, chilies, and garlic. As you can see it contains most of the Thai flavors, which is why it goes with so many snacks and dishes.
Or similarly, try Nam Jim Jaew, often served with Thai BBQ or Grilled Pork and Beef.
Then we have the Thai chili paste – nam phrik pao – which is not only used as a sauce. It’s sort of the ultimate ingredient for Thai cooking. Cooks in Thailand can barely live without it because it includes all five distinct flavors. The paste combines dried chilies, shallots, garlic, palm sugar, tamarind, and fish sauce amongst a whole bunch of other goodness. The better restaurants create their own nam prik pao, but more often they buy it from the local store. Some Thais even spread it on their toast for a light snack. In that sense, it’s the Thai version of Marmite or Vegemite. Only it actually tastes good. #boom #shotsfired
Since I’m clearly getting lynched by people from England and Australia now, we conclude this post with a pickled cucumber relish. Ajat is a sweet and sour sauce, thanks to its gracious use of sugar and vinegar. The cucumber adds a fresh flavor to it. This freshness is why you will often see it eaten in combination with oily or deep fried snacks like fish cakes or satays.
In my last minutes amongst the living, I would like to know which condiment in Thailand is the one you just can’t live without. Or is there one on our list that you haven’t tried yet? Let us know in the comments below and share some of your Instagram pictures as well! After all, an Instagram profile wouldn’t be complete without at least a couple of heavily filtered food pictures. So, don’t be shy and let us collectively get hungry by looking at mouthwatering Thai dishes.