A recent visitor to Thailand felt victory and acceptance at a local eatery when he ordered a traditional Thai omelet and asked the server for น้ำปลาพริก or “naam bplaa prik” sauce that makes life worth living and is a common condiment on Thai restaurants. Here, “naam bplaa” means fish sauce and “prik” is chillies. While a Western restaurant might have salt and pepper shakers on the table so diners can add some flavor to their food, Thais use a version of this fish sauce and chillie combination to offer the chance to customize food.
The restaurant makes this sauce fresh everyday and had not yet placed it on the table. So the cook took the 30 seconds it takes to combine the ingredients and gave it to the eater with a smile and the welcome “gin gaeng” or colloquial Thai for “You know how to eat our food” – a complimentary phrase that all real Thai foodies crave.
In its simplest form, the sauce is fish sauce combined with finely chopped Thai bird’s eye chillies.
There are other variations on this simple sauce, too. So what is this important and life sustaining sauce? It is a simple combination of salty fish sauce, tangy lime juice, fiery finely chopped chillies and sweet white sugar – the fantastic four flavors that a diner can add to a dish to give it the balance and power it might need.
My cooking mentor and employer “Mister Aow” has his own version. As his time is limited, when we have the occasion to dine together, I make sure this sauce is on the table according to his formula. My epicurean sister Susan visited me in Thailand and ate with Mister Aow and I. After she discovered the simple beauty of this sauce, she now makes it at home in America. I’m told she sends it to my nephew who is away from home studying at university. I hope he appreciates his mothers love, and this sauce!
There are a dozen brands of Thai fish sauce for sale in Thailand – the most popular brands exported are TIPAROS and SQUID BRAND. I use the TIPAROS brand – high quality and has 4.5% sugar added that helps temper the salty flavor.
TUMMY TIP: When buying fish sauce, I recommend you purchase it in 60 ml bottles or 300 ml bottles. Fish sauce can go stale and lose its flavor and aroma over time. One sign that fish sauce has gone stale is the color of the fish sauce changes from a tea color to the color of black coffee. So, buy smaller quantities and use the bottle, the replace rather than trying to economize and buy a large 1 liter bottle and have the chance that it goes stale before your next Thai cooking adventure in your home kitchen.
I like to use this sauce to enliven omelets or add a kick to other dishes such as steamed fish or just on top of steamed jasmine rice.
- Fish sauce – 2 tablespoons / 30 ml
- Lime juice – 2 tablespoons / 30 ml
- Chillies – use Thai bird’s eye chillies, stems removed and finely chopped, 2 teaspoons / enough to fill a 10 ml measuring spoon
- White sugar - 1 teaspoon / enough to fill a 5 ml measuring spoon
- measuring spoons
- cutting board to cut the chillies
- bowl for serving the sauce
- spoon for stirring the sauce so the sugar goes into solution with the fish sauce and lime juice – you can use the same spoon for serving the sauce
- Cut off the stem of the Thai bird’s eye chillies and slice the chillies finely into rings.
- Add the chillies to the serving bowl.
- Measure in the lime juice and fish sauce.
- Add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved.
- Taste and adjust for your own palate – if it is too spicy, add more sugar.
This Sauce of Life makes a plain omelet come alive and generally makes life worth living.
If you have sauce left over, you can store it in an airtight glass container in the refrigerator for a day or so, but it tastes best when freshly made.