Even if you have tasted lots of different chilli preserves, pickles, jellies or sauces, you will still be blown away by the extraordinary richness of flavours of this Thai condiment. It is obviously hot, but also smokey, sweet, salty, slightly sour, slightly pungent and, most of all, utterly addictive. At first I wondered why it’s called “jam”, but I quickly understood: as soon as I tasted the first spoonful, all I wanted was simply spread a thick layer of it on a piece of crunchy bread and enjoy every single bite of this astonishing product.
Nham Prik Pao/Nam Prik Pao is a famous Thai chilli paste, available in Asian grocery shops. According to David Thompson (Thai Food), there are two distinct methods to obtain it: grilling or frying and he advises the latter, more versatile, technique which I followed as closely as I could. The presence of dried shrimp, shrimp paste, galangal and most of all tamarind creates an incredibly complex and sophisticated result: sticky, pungent irresistible jam which, according to what I read on different internet sources, is indeed eaten as a bread spread in Thailand. According to David Thompson, this jam can be used as a relish, added to a sour soup (such as Tom Yum Goong), act as a basis for stir-fries and as a salad sauce. I have a friend who uses it all the time, so I’m sure it will not stay forgotten in your fridge. Definitely worth the long cutting and frying process!
I have mixed here two recipes (from David Thompson’s Thai Food and Thai Street Food), slightly changing the amounts of certain ingredients, so check either of these fascinating books to see the original recipe.
TIPS: If you cannot find shrimp paste, skip it. In his other book (Thai Street Food) David Thompson doesn’t include it in chilli jam recipe, so I guess it’s not obligatory, but I preferred the jam with it.
According to David Thompson galangal can be skipped here, but one does taste its presence in the final product and I think it creates and even more interesting taste, so if you can find it, buy it!
If you don’t find dried shrimp, you can easily dry fresh or defrosted small shrimp in the oven set at low temperature. Check David Thompson’s Thai Food for the exact recipe (that’s what I did and my own dried shrimps were not only ridiculously easy to prepare, but largely superior to the bought stuff).
Tamarind can be bought in different forms: fresh, as a ready-to-use paste or in a square block. I use only tamarind blocks, advised in both Indian and Thai cookery books, so I have no idea how much of it should be used if you opt for the paste instead.
Preparation: about 1 hour
Ingredients (fills a 200-250 ml jar):
oil for deep frying
150 g Asian shallots (I have used European shallots)
75 g garlic
2 slices fresh galangal
5 dried long chillies (you can use any variety, but I would avoid bird’s-eye chillies or Scotch bonnet or other extremely hot ones)
2 heaped tablespoons dried shrimp
3 flat tablespoons palm sugar
2 cm square of tamarind block
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
Start with obtaining tamarind juice.
Cut about 2 cm square piece of tamarind block and pour 50 ml boiling water over it. Dissolve, stirring with a spoon. Put aside.
After about 15 minutes strain it: you obtain the tamarind juice, aka tamarind water.
Soak the dried chillies in salted water for ten minutes, deseed them (or not, if you want a hotter result) and dry them well.
Heat an empty pan and roast the 1/2 teaspoon of shrimp paste.
Rinse the dried shrimp and dry with paper towels.
Slice finely both the garlic and the shallots.
Heat the oil in a pan and deep fry the ingredients separately (in my opinion the following order is the best): galangal slices, chilli (until it starts looking crispy, but don’t let it burn!), garlic (beware, it starts changing colour very quickly and burns even quicker, so take it out with a slotted spoon as soon as it starts becoming light golden) and finally the shallots until they are golden (this will take a while and you need to do it in two batches at least).
Combine all the fried ingredients and dried shrimp in a mortar and pound them or, as I did, mix them in a baby food processor, adding some oil – as the author advises – to make the process easier.
Transfer the paste to a pan, add several more tablespoons oil and bring to a boil. Add the sugar, the tamarind juice and the fish sauce. Stir for about a minute, taste and adjust the flavours if needed (though it’s difficult while still hot…). Apparently the sugar can easily burn, so don’t heat the paste for too long. Now your chilli jam is ready!
It will keep in the fridge forever (I empty mine in several days…).