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What is Nam Prik Pao?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Nam prik pao is famous for being the condiment that inspired a terror alert. One day in 2007 in London, a strange acrid odor filled the streets, causing civilians to duck inside for cover and to report a possible chemical attack. When firefighters responded, they discovered a wok of chilies that were in the process of being toasted for the purpose of making the condiment. The Thai kitchen staff were confused at first, but once matters were sorted out, they were quite apologetic.

This chili-based condiment is a distinctive feature in Thai cuisine. It combines the Thai flavors of bitter, hot, sour, salty, and sweet in an intense marriage that pairs well with a wide assortment of foods, from plain white rice to pad thai. In Thailand, nam prik pao is eaten with a wide assortment of dishes, and it is a common offering at Thai restaurants the world over. Depending on the taste of the cook, the flavor may have an emphasis on the sweet or hot, with some versions getting quite fiery.

To make nam prik pao, most cooks start by dry roasting dried chilies to bring out their intense flavor, before grinding them in a mortar and pestle. Shallots and garlic are then thinly sliced and fried in a small amount of peanut oil before being cooked with a blend of fish sauce, shrimp paste, palm sugar, and sometimes tamarind paste as well. The chili mixture is added back in, and the mixture is allowed to briefly cook to thicken before being poured off into jars.

Like many condiments, nam prik pao is designed to have a long shelf life. Chilies are excellent preservatives, and when it is stored in a cool, dry place, this condiment can keep for an extended period of time. Small amounts are typically ladled out at once to satisfy a desire for its flavor; it is most typically added to cooked dishes, rather than being included in the cooking process.

It is possible to purchase nam prik pao from Asian grocers, and some Thai restaurants also sell their own. You can also make it at home, tweaking the balance of flavors to your satisfaction. If you have difficulty with hot foods, for example, consider using more sugar to balance out the intensity of the chilies, while fans of heat can include the seeds and membranes of the chilies for an extra kick.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon335829 — On May 23, 2013

Nam Prik Pao is a universal Umami Savory aspect of Thai or any dish. I use it as a lubricant in rice noodles to deepen and layer the goodness of any meal. If made fresh, I always brown the garlic and shallots separately.

By fify — On Jan 09, 2013

@rltomkinson-- Can you go to a Thai grocery? Thai groceries usually carry the very hot Thai peppers that are suitable for nam prik pao recipes. They go by various names, like dragon chili or super Thai chili both of which are very spicy.

Alternatively, you can also try some Southeast Asian peppers, some Indian chilies can also be very hot and flavorful. Just experiment and see what works best for you.

By literally45 — On Jan 08, 2013

Nam prik pao chili sauce is delicious. I can eat it with every meal.

I like mine with dried shrimp, lots of garlic, shallots and fresh ginger. I also make it more sweet than spicy because then I can eat it even by itself. I have done that in the past when I don't feel like cooking. I will make some rice and steamed vegetables and eat it with my nam prik pao.

The great part about the dried shrimp is that it makes it more than a sauce, more like a side dish which can be eaten alone. It becomes a source of protein. This is also a great condiment for winter because shallots, garlic and ginger are rich in antioxidants and they are sources of natural antibiotics and antibacterials. I feel like nam prik pao strengthens my immune system as well.

By candyquilt — On Jan 08, 2013

@rltomkinson-- I just use regular red chilies. That's what my nam prik pao recipe says to use. If you want it extra hot, don't clean out the seeds, just leave them in. That's where most of the hotness comes from. Instead of dry roasting the chilies, roast them in oil which will bring out even more hotness.

By rltomkinson — On Apr 23, 2008

What kind of peppers are used? I like my food really hot.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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