Complex flavor does not necessarily translate into complicated recipe and this Thai creation is a perfect example. The layering of ingredients to achieve the perfect balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet result in a memorable bowl of pure goodness. This week I taught a class themed “Thai Soups” and in less than 2 hours we were able to produce three pots of soup that delighted the palates of all in attendance. The recipes I chose all started with the simple technique of infusing chicken stock with aromatics traditionally found in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, lemongrass, chilies and kaffir lime leaves (or lime juice and/or zest) which provide the foundation of sour and hot. To this base you add the elements of salty, achieved with fish sauce or nam pla, and sweet which is traditionally the addition of palm sugar ( light brown sugar can be substituted). What makes this so enticing is you control all the elements and can adjust to your liking.
In the beautiful book titled, “Hot Sour Salty Sweet, A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia,” the award-winning authors, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid speak of a common practice they encountered in their travels. They use the example of ordering a green papaya salad and the chef offering it to them for a taste inquiring if they wanted any adjustments such as, more heat or additional sour component. In other words, make it your own.
The recipe I am featuring today I made with shrimp but you could substitute chicken if you wish. The broth is like a flavor party in your mouth with the citrus flavors adding a brightness to balance the heat from the chilies and then a bit of sugar and fish sauce to finish it off.
Here is how it goes down.
Thai Hot and Sour Soup Serves 4-6
6 c chicken stock
1 large stalk lemon grass, tough outer leaves removed, trimmed to 12 inches and angle cut to 2-inch pieces (or strips of lemon peel from 1 lemon)
10 (5 pairs) Kaffir lime leaves, or strips of peel from 1 lime
1 ½ – 2 T Chili-Tamarind Paste (nam phrik pao)**
4 T Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
½ c fresh lime juice
¼ c coconut palm sugar or golden brown sugar
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ lb. oyster mushrooms or button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
5 small Thai chilies, stemmed and lightly crushed
Sprigs of cilantro for garnish
- Put the stock and lemon grass (or peel) in a soup pot. If using Kaffir lime leaves, tear each leaf in half and add to the stock. If using lime peel, add that. Gradually bring to a low boil over medium high heat. Keep at a low boil for 1 minute.
- Stir in the chili-tamarind paste.
- Add the fish sauce and lime juice.
- Add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved and blended.
- Remove the solids (aromatics) from the broth.
- Add the shrimp, chilies and mushrooms and simmer just until cooked, about 1 minute.
- Turn off the heat. Ladle into a steamboat, a soup tureen or individual serving bowls. Tear a sprig of cilantro over each.
The soup I made had a lot of fire but you can control that by reducing the number of chilies and the amount of the chili-tamarind paste which can either be bought commercially (available at Asian markets or ethnic sections of the grocery) or you can make your own which is what I do. This is my recipe.
NAM PRIK PAO (Chili Tamarind Paste) Makes a small jar ( ½ c)Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis
¼ c neutral cooking oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
Dried red chilies or chili flakes, ground to make about 3T (I used dried chili arbol)
½ t shrimp paste (anchovy paste or mashed anchovy can be substituted)
2T fish sauce
2T palm or brown sugar
1 t tamarind paste
2 T water
- Finely chop the garlic and shallots by hand or in a processor. Be careful not to over process or you will end up with a mushy mess. You want individual looking pieces of shallot and garlic.
- To grind the chili, place whole dried chilies or chili flakes in a coffee grinder and pulse until you get a powdery consistency.
- Heat oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Add the chopped shallots and garlic, frying until they turn a very light brown and slightly crispy (2-3 minutes) being careful not to burn.
- Remove the garlic and shallots with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Using a mortal and pestle or mini food processor, combine the chili with the shrimp paste, fish sauce, sugar, tamarind paste, and water. Add the garlic and shallots. Process to form a thick paste.
- Return the paste to your frying pan and stir into the remaining oil over low heat until you get a fairly even consistency.
- Adjust the consistency with water if too thick or more oil for a shinier paste.
- Adjust the taste, adding more fish sauce, if you like it saltier or more sugar if you like it sweeter.
I began making my own when I couldn’t find it locally and have continued to do so because I really love having it on hand. Nam prik pao will keep for several weeks stored in a jar in your refrigerator. It can be used in almost any dish needing a flavor punch. Try adding a bit next time you make standard chicken noodle soup. I think you will be surprised. If you can’t find it commercially or don’t want to make you own, try substituting Sriracha Chili Sauce or Sambal Oelek (ground fresh chili paste) both readily available at most markets.
I hope this post gives you confidence to try this complex but not complicated recipe as well as other Thai creations. Once you have a few specialty ingredients on hand or suitable substitutes, you can create many dishes inspired from this corner of our world. Until next time, try spreading the love, Thai style, one dish at a time. I may have to make more soup tonight. Until next time, sending love to you from my soup pot to yours. Jeanne