To say that the Thai people love condiments and relishes is a big understatement: There are too many to count, and parodies have been written about how incredibly vast the category is.
Take the late M.R. Kukrit Pramoj’s in One Thousand and One Nights. In this version, our Scheherazade was a young consort of an imaginary Thai king who lived in ancient times. Just as Scheherazade in the original story intentionally delayed her demise by telling one story to the king each night, the Thai Scheherazade also did the same—except instead of telling stories, she shared Thai recipes. The smart girl began with the condiment and relish category. I guess you can see now how the story ends: After years of sharing one relish recipe with the king nightly, the consort had now become a very old woman. And when she finally died of old age, wrote Pramoj, she hadn’t even gotten to the coconut-based relishes yet.
In most cases, traditional Thai condiments are used within the realm of what can only be described as socially understood rules. However, with creativity and imagination, you can greatly expand their usefulness—even beyond Thai cooking.
Here are four among the most basic Thai condiments that are as versatile as you make them. With the exception of one that is easy to source but not necessarily simple or quick to make, these condiments can be—and usually are—made at home in just a few minutes.
Sour, salty, spicy, and somewhat sweet, sriracha (pronounced see-raa-chaa) sauce is a great condiment to go with seafood dishes, especially deep-fried or batter-fried seafood. The sauce isn’t usually made at home even though it’s quite easy to whip up with just a few ingredients: fresh red chiles, garlic, vinegar, salt, and sugar (you can find a basic recipe here). However, if you choose to buy it, which is the route most Thai home cooks choose, you will never ever go wrong with either Shark brand or Sriraja Panich Brand from Thailand.
It should be noted that traditional Thai sriracha is quite different from the American-style sriracha, aka the rooster sauce, which is created and popularized by California-based Huy Fong Foods, Inc., based on its founder’s interpretation of the Thai sriracha sauce. The former is runnier, sweeter, less spicy (even the variety labeled ‘hot’), and much more mellow than the latter, which is thicker, more garlicky, more pungent, and spicier.
I have been writing about Thai food for nearly a decade now, and hardly a month has gone by when I don’t hear about someone ruining a Thai recipe by using the wrong sriracha—they are not interchangeable. A good rule of thumb is that if you know that the recipe you’re considering making is written by a native Thai or someone with extensive experience cooking Thai food, whenever sriracha sauce is called for, unless otherwise stated, it’s the traditional Thai one.
If you’re not bound by recipes when using the sauces, though, the differences don’t matter as much—use them how you like them. Some ideas:
The Thai name says it all: nam jim kai means literally “dipping sauce [to eat with] chicken.” In Thailand, this sweet and sour sauce is used just to dip grilled chicken or fried chicken, but the sweet, sour, and very mildly spicy condiment lends itself to many more applications.
This somewhat-syrupy chile sauce made from blending sugar, vinegar, chiles, and garlic can be used as a dipping sauce for fried eggrolls, fresh spring rolls, and all sorts of savory fritters. It makes a great basting sauce for grilled meats. You can doctor it up with chopped cilantro, chopped fresh chiles, and minced garlic, and you’ve got a delicious sauce to coat fried chicken wings or to drizzle or slather over a grilled salmon fillet.
You can make Thai sweet chile sauce yourself easily using this recipe here, or you can buy the commercially prepared version that comes in a glass bottle; any brand from Thailand works well.
Even if you’ve never heard of this flavorful condiment, chances are you already have had quite a bit of it: The most famous version of tom yam gets its slightly sweet flavor, smoky aroma, and reddish appearance from none other than nam phrik phao.
Tart, sweet, salty, smoky, pleasantly piscine, and deeply umami, chile jam is much more than just a condiment; it’s also a cooking ingredient and, given how relishes are served at the Thai table, I’d argue it’s a dish unto itself. You can—like many Thai people—spread it on toast for a snack. You can also use it as a sandwich spread, a dip for fried pork rinds—potato chips or pita chips—or as the start of a salad dressing.
Since it’s packed with dried chiles, garlic, shallots, dried shrimp, shrimp paste, palm sugar, tamarind, and fish sauce, it’s also a powerhouse in cooking. Having this item around means you can turn the odds and ends in the refrigerator into a weeknight meal with the complex flavor that belies the little time you actually spend on it. Try adding a dollop of chile jam into the wok when you make fried rice. A small amount of nam phrik phao added to a simple stir-fry of vegetables like asparagus, bok choy, cabbage, or mixed wild mushrooms turns it into a delicious rice accompaniment.
Nam phrik phao comes in a glass jar and is often labeled—misleadingly and unhelpfully—”chili paste in oil.” The best way to make sure you get the right product out of all the various Asian chili pastes in oil is to look for the word น้ำพริกเผา on the label. Mae Pranom and Pantai brands are widely available in the US and are quite good. You can also make it yourself.
This heavily simplified version of the northeastern Thai (Isan) family of salty, sour, and spicy dipping sauces (jaeo, often spelled jaew) is an example of the many Thai condiments that are best made fresh and whose quality is so greatly compromised when turned into shelf-stable products that manufacturers don't even bother trying.
The salty, sour, spicy flavor rests on three main components: fish sauce, dried red chile flakes, and lime juice. Sliced shallots, or sometimes sliced green onions and cilantro, are often added, but it’s the addition of the toasted rice powder that makes nam jim jaeo what it is.
Just a light sprinkle of the rice powder is enough to give the sauce its signature toasty, smoky aroma. You don’t need a lot of the rice powder as too much will turn the sauce too thick and gummy (the sauce is quite thin—thinner in consistency than the other sauces mentioned here—because its core consists of no more than fish sauce and lime juice and the add-ins are there to accent the core rather than to thicken the finished sauce).
To make toasted rice powder, simply toast a couple tablespoons of Thai sticky rice (some use 50% sticky rice and 50% jasmine rice) in a dry skillet set over medium-low heat, stirring every few seconds, until the rice turns medium brown and fragrant. If you have some fresh lemongrass, galangal, or makrut lime (kaffir lime) leaves, add a couple slices of each to the skillet to enhance the aroma of the rice powder (and eventually your nam jim jaeo). Leave the rice to cool completely before you grind it into a medium-fine powder. This is the most time-consuming part in the making of this condiment, but if you make the rice powder in advance and keep it in your pantry (it keeps for months), putting together a bowl of nam jim jaeo takes only a moment. You can find a simple recipe for it here.
Serve the sauce with grilled chicken alongside the sweet chile sauce mentioned above: The two sauces go so well together that when you buy grilled chicken in Thailand, especially in Bangkok, you’ll typically get both types of condiment with your chicken. Dried chile dipping sauce also goes famously with grilled steak (eat it with warm sticky rice!). Start with the nam jim jaeo recipe but replace some of the lime juice with tamarind paste, add some palm sugar or brown sugar, and you’ll get another dipping sauce altogether that goes very well with grilled pork. Keep the sauce (minus the rice powder) in the fridge for quick salad dressing: Dress shredded leftover rotisserie chicken and paper thin slices of cucumber, stirring in the shallots, cilantro, and rice powder just before you give the salad a final toss.