When I sit down at a restaurant, whether it's fine dining or a diner, I want a bottle of hot sauce close to me. In Thailand, they feel my struggle. Places that serve great food and those that serve up mediocrity will almost always have condiments set at each table. It is actually a sign of a quality restaurant if their table side seasonings look fresh and abundant. Our favorite spot for Khao Ka Muu, braised pork shank over rice, is a great example. The traditional garnishes of raw whole chiles, raw whole garlic cloves and scallions are usually crisp and unblemished. The same can't be said for their competition.
Accompaniments will vary based on the dishes being served. The four most common condiments: toasted chile powder, chiles soaked in fish sauce, chiles soaked in vinegar, and sugar. These flavorful accessories speak to the tastes Thai people enjoy. Salty, spicy, bitter, tart, and sweet appear in different levels of prominence in the majority of Thai dishes. The proprietors of restaurants here understand that everyone's tastes vary and oblige by allowing us to make decisions at the table.
Besides the condiments on the table, there are some that are too precious to put out for anyone to grab. Northern Thai style laap is often served with a handful of addictively crunchy fried shallots on top. North Eastern or Isaan style laap, hailing from Laos, isn't complete without the characteristic nutty aroma and slight viscosity added by a dusting of toasted rice powder.
The condiments listed here, while very Thai in nature, are great garnishes for any food. Why not sprinkle fried garlic and toasted chile powder on pasta dishes? Here are recipes for a few of Shade Market's favorite toppings so far.
Toasted Chile Powder (Prik Pon Khua)
This stuff is so addictive. Its pleasantly bitter notes, combined with a creeping, slow heat compliment a myriad of dishes. At PunPun it was always served with noodle dishes and soups (really good with tom khao, a rice soup). They store it in little jars, so I thought they bought it. I was overjoyed when I walked into the kitchen just as Nong, one of the cooks, was making it. This recipe calls for thai dried chilies, but there are a number of different Italian or Mexican dried chilies that would work really well. This recipe makes about half a cup which goes a long way.
30 dried chiles (Thai, Pulla, Arbol, or Calabrian will work well)
A stone mortar and pestle (best option), or a spice grinder (good option) are necessary.
1. Put the chiles in a pan, and put it over medium heat. The aroma will be really strong, open a window and turn on the exhaust fan.
2. Stir almost constantly until the chilies turn a rich, dark, reddish-brown color. It will take 15-25 minutes. They should be fragile at this point.
3. Let them cool. When they are cool, add enough to fill the mortar halfway and crush into a fine powder, somewhere between Italian chili flakes and cayenne powder. Or, pulse them in a spice grinder, try not to over process. This may need to be done in batches.
4. Store in a clean, dry jar with a tight fitting lid.
Chiles Soaked in Fish Sauce/Vinegar (Prik Naam Pla/Naam Som)
These are served in little bowls at noodle shops along with toasted chili powder and granulated sugar. The vinegar adds the tart flavor; the fish sauce brings salty; the marinated chiles contribute spicy; the chili powder has the bitter; and the sugar covers sweet. With these four things on the table, the Thai palette can be easily pleased. Many different types of fresh chiles can be found marinating table side. I like Prik Kii Nuu, green Thai "birds eye" chiles. They can be found in large Asian supermarkets which can make for a fun day trip. No worries if you can't find them. Just use a fairly spicy chili and good things will happen.
10-15 Prik kii nuu (small thai green chiles) or 10 serrano chiles
Fish sauce or white vinegar
1. Slice the chiles into rounds from 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick (don't sweat it to much). Put them in a small serving bowl.
2. Pour enough fish sauce or vinegar over so the chiles just start to float, about a 1/2 cup.
3. They are ready. This is best eaten in the first day or two after making. The chiles start to lose their freshness. These are obvious condiments if you're eating Thai Food, even takeout, but they are good with most foods. Try them on scrambled eggs, fish and chips, pasta pomodori, or any bland food that needs some help.
Fried Garlic and Fried Shallots
I actually learned the technique of frying garlic from the chef at a "New American" restaurant in Brooklyn. We made huge amounts everyday, and sprinkled it on everything from raw fish, to anchovy buttered steaks, to the pizza we ate for family meal. It was only a matter of time until we figured out that shallots fry the same way. The great thing about this method is that you can use the the leftover oil. Fried garlic oil can be used to finish dishes, adding a roasted garlic flavor. Once I became aware of these condiments, I started noticing them everywhere. Fried garlic in a big bowl of ramen. Fried shallots in a salad at Pok Pok Brooklyn. These crunchy toppings are addictive to eat on their own, and can be thrown on top of just about any savory dish. In the markets in Chiang Mai, you can buy them by the bag full, and they can be bought jarred in the States. But if you do it yourself, you get the oil which is equally delicious.
Small sauce pot
Strainer set over a bowl
A plate lined with paper towel
20 cloves garlic or 8 small shallots
1-2 cups of neutral oil (canola, soy, peanut, grape-seed)
1. Finely mince the garlic or slice the shallots into 1/8 inch thick pieces. Pieces that are too big won't get as crispy and will go stale faster.
2. Heat the oil in a small sauce pot over medium heat. You really want just enough oil to cover the garlic/shallots. The pot should be no more than half full. When you add the garlic/shallots it will bubble up a lot. Test the oil by putting one piece in. If it bubbles up to the top gently, it's ready. If it crackles loudly or boils very aggressively, the oil is too hot, just set it aside to cool for a few minutes and try again. Make sure to have the strainer set over a bowl and your plate lined with towel handy.
3. Add all of your garlic/shallots at once. The idea is to crowd the oil and lower the temp. A lot of steam will come out now. That steam represents the water cooking out of your garlic/shallots, enabling them to become crispy.
4. When the steam subsides, continue to cook, stirring occasionally. Garlic will take 5 to 10 minutes, shallots are more like 10-20. Rushing the process on a higher heat will yield a bitter, flimsy finished result. You're looking for a light golden brown.
5. When you achieve the color, strain immediately. Let as much oil as you can drain out, then spread your crispy bits on the paper towel, and allow them to cool. They won't be super crispy until they cool off a bit. You will notice that the color will continue to get a bit darker until they are cool. This is due to residual heat and oil still inside the garlic/shallots, and is known as "carry over cooking".
6. These are best used the same day. To store, keep in a clean, dry jar with a lid, and they may last an extra day. The oil keeps for a few weeks, but if it starts to smell like rotten garlic or shallots, it's done for. The oil can be reused to fry a few more batches of crisps. Leftovers shouldn't be too much of a problem, as these crispy treats usually go fast.
Toasted Rice Powder (Khao Kua)
Laap is an Isaan dish often translated to minced meat salad. Go to Pok Pok or Night + Market to try these dishes, in the States. It is such a great dish. It's made from a minced protein of almost any kind (pork, duck, fish, beef, chicken, or tofu). The meat is cooked in aromatics and seasoning, then tossed with raw shallots and herbs (this is how it got labeled salad). Toasted rice powder is the most subtle ingredient in this dish but crucial to the flavor and texture. It is also sprinkled on jaew, a tamarind based dipping sauce for grilled meats. Krit Niamjan, one of PunPun's Thai cooking experts, taught us this technique. I recently made some and have been adding it to green salads for a nuanced consistency and flavor.
Stone mortar and pestle or spice grinder
1/2 cup raw sticky rice (this recipe only works with sticky rice)
1. Put the sticky rice in a pan. It should be spread in an even layer that covers the entire surface area of the pan.
2. Set the pan over medium heat and stir constantly until it is golden brown, this may take up to 45 minutes.
3. When it has the desired color, remove the rice from the pan onto a plate, and allow to cool.
4. Once cool, use the mortar and pestle to pound the rice or grind the rice into the consistency of coarse sand. It should be a little coarser than something like garlic powder.
5. You can store the rice powder in a dry, clean jar with a tight fitting lid indefinitely. Mine has been sitting out uncovered for about a week and is totally fine.
These are just some of the great toppings and condiments eaten here. More to come in Pt. 2