This is one of the most essential and basic Thai recipes. Some call it an obsession. Some call it a fixation. Some call it bizarre. But for 68 million Thai people, it is just called a flavorful lunch with an indispensable condiment. No meal is complete without the tabletop jar what I like to call “The Sauce of Life”.
Please note that there are many variations of this Thai recipe – I adopted the Thai recipe taught to me by my cooking mentor Mister Aow and his personal Chef named Auntie Damm, both of whom I owe a debt of gratitude for opening my mind (and palate) to the incredible variety and excellence of Thai food.
Sure, I grew up eating mostly white food – pork chops and mashed potatoes and powered milk and fish chowder like any kid in rural Maine. We had what I call the “Yankee Spice Cabinet” – limited to salt and black pepper and some mild paprika for color. But travel and an inquisitive appetite have led me to another style of eating. Now, I have to have the quartet of quality, the fantastic four flavors of spicy chilies, salty (from briny and savory fish sauce), tangy lime juice and a little sweet white sugar. I have to have it frequently or I despair.
Just before leaving to return to Thailand, I was left home alone at my lodgings of generous host Kevin (known in Thailand as “Mister Ting-Tong” or “Mister Nutty but Funny” in English). I was without access to the supermarket. I had to adapt and overcome for lunch (my favorite reference to Clint Eastwood’s grizzled Marine sergeant character in HEARTBREAK RIDGE).
So I gathered what I could from the cabinet and fridge and cobbled together an Asian lunch.
I stir fried these together, carefully anointing the minced chicken and beans with Thai fish sauce and lime juice. But I was missing two elements of the Fantastic Four. The dish had no spice and so sweet. If I did not have the Fantastic Four, the world could spin off balance and hurtle into space, out of position with the sun and moon, or so it seemed at the time.
Relief coursed through my body when I realized I had an emergency backup supply of the Sauce of Life. The shaking in my hands subsided and my heartbeat fell to the resting state.
Here is a set up and recipe for the Sauce of Life. It is the most common tabletop condiment in Thailand (if you see salt and pepper shakers on the table in Thailand, likely other farangs and their raucous demands for bland food have proceeded you. Back out of the restaurant, slowly, smiling all the while and find another place to eat).
The best fish sauce is the freshest fish sauce. Fish sauce the color of tea is fresh as you can see in the photo; the smaller bottle contains fish sauce that has aged and gone stale. Seek out the fresh fish sauce for best flavor and throw away fish sauce that has darkened.
- Lime Juice, 3 tablespoons
- Fish Sauce, 2 tablespoons
- Red Bird’s Eye Chiles, 1 tablespoon
- White Sugar, 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon (I started with 1/2 teaspoon, but had to adjust as the chilies were powerfully spicy, so I added more sugar to temper the spicy heat)
To reduce the level of spice, decrease the amount of chiles and/or increase the sugar quantity.
- Add the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well to dissolve the sugar.Decant into a receptacle that can be well sealed.
- Add to any food to make life worth living.
- You may store this sauce in the refrigerator for several weeks.
- If you notice the sauce turning from the color of tea to the color of coffee, it is time to make a new batch.
- Enjoy the Fantastic Four Flavors. You will glad to have made it. There are no commercially available products for this sauce – it is always made fresh for use.