Nam Prik Pao (Thai Chili Paste)

by Jess on February 17, 2011

in Recipes, Thai Recipes

Nam Prik Pao (thai chili paste) is a common ingredient used in Thai cooking.  It is spicy and sweet, with rich flavors of roasted vegetables and is often enriched with shrimp.  I’ve used it in recipes on this site, and it is so common that you might be able to easily find in a jar outside of Thailand.

I have been on the hunt for a recipe for nam prik pao that doesn’t require 7 hours of commitment but still offers all the flavor.  Most recipes I found on the internet gave me a headache.  One recipe actually required that you place all of the ingredients outside in the sun for several days to allow them to dry.  (In Bangkok I suspect that this activity may lead to dried peppers that taste a bit like car exhaust fumes.)

Earlier this week I made a version from a Thai cookbook and it produced something much closer to the Red Pepper Jelly I make at Christmas – sweet with a hint of spice but none of the deep layers of flavor that come from roasting the vegetables first for an authentic-tasting nam prik pao.


I nearly came to the conclusion that I should stick with the stuff in a jar and give up on ever being able to produce my own.  But what kind of foodie blogger would I be if I didn’t try to tackle at least one or two ridiculous food endeavors and share them here.   It also helped that finally I entered into this endeavor knowing that I would gladly sacrifice the pride of making nam prik pao the way it was made in this country 200 years ago, if it produced a recipe that I could (and would) actually make again.

Certainly there are people out there who are experts in authentic Thai cooking and can tell you all 76 steps that a Thai grandmother would take to make this stuff at home.  What follows is not that sort of recipe, but this absolutely produces a flavorful, and very close approximation, of the nam prik pao I taste frequently here in Thailand.

My first step was a little taste test of just a few of the hundreds of Thai Chili Pastes available on the market at my local grocery store in Bangkok.  There is an entire section of the grocery store dedicated to this product, so there’s was no shortage of options to try.

They vary quite a bit in taste, but I found that my favorite version (even when tasted amidst these other options) is the one on the middle right below, by Mae Praenom.  It may just be that this suits my western palate because it is the least “fishy” of the options and the sweetest tasting.

These versions in the jar actually have very few ingredients.  Primarily the ingredients are red chilis, onions, garlic, sugar, vinegar, oil and shrimp or shrimp paste.  Using this as a guide, and with the knowledge that part of the richness in flavor of the paste comes from the roasting (or sometimes frying) of the ingredients, I set to work.

After several attempts, it became clear that I prefer to make nam prik pao vegetarian style, getting a savory element from mushrooms rather than ground shrimp.  I tend to like the shrimp flavor, but found that in the following recipe, I preferred a non-fishy flavor.

If you prefer to use shrimp, simply substitute 2 tablespoons of dried shrimp for the mushrooms.  Dried shrimp are shown below.

After all the effort and a few terrible batches, the recipe that follows met all of my expectations, and was easier to execute than any of the recipes I could find elsewhere.  I actually liked the finished homemade paste much more than the kind I’ve been buying in a jar, although there will certainly be times that the convenience of the jar will win out.

Have you ever had nam prik pao?  Do you like the shrimp flavor in the authentic variety?

Nam Prik Pao (Thai Chili Paste)
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: Condiment
Cuisine: Thai
Serves: 1 cup
Ingredients
  • 13 large red Thai chilis, seperated (10 will be roasted, 3 will be used raw)
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • ½ large onion (peeled and cut into quarters)
  • 2 large shiitake mushrooms
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup tamarind paste (available in the international section of many grocery stores or any Asian market; if you cannot find this, you can substitute distilled white vinegar, for a different, but still delicious paste)
  • ¼ cup distilled white vinegar
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice 10 of the red chilis in half and place them face down on a baking sheet. Place garlic cloves and onion on the baking sheet, insuring that none of the vegetables are overlapping. Bake, without stirring, until chilis begin to blacken in spots, about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Cut the 3 remaining chilis in half lengthwise. Gently remove the seeds and membranes from both the roasted and raw chilies (see note below). Gently squeeze the garlic cloves to extract the roasted garlic, and discard the peels.
  3. Put garlic, chilis, onions and mushrooms in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is finely and evenly chopped. (It will be nearly smooth and ground to a paste in some spots.)
  4. Place the chopped vegetables, sugar, water, and tamarind paste (or vinegar, in a small pot over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently. If the paste begins to boil, reduce the temperature to maintain a low simmer. Continue simmering until the mixture becomes smooth and thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Store in the refrigerator.
Notes
The chilis used in this version of Nam Prik Pao are spicy Thai chilis. They are about the length of my hand, from wrist to the tip of my pointer finger. Dried long chilis will work as a substitute, but they do not need to be roasted before being used in the recipe, and you will need to double the amount to about 20 chilis, taking extra care to remove the seeds and membranes before using them. If you prefer to use fish to make a more traditional Nam Prik Pao, substitute 2 Tablespoons of small dried shrimp for the shitake mushrooms. The membrane and seeds contain the majority of the spice in the chilis. If you remove all of the membrane and seeds, the resulting paste will still be spicy, but not as spicy as if you leave some of the seeds and membrane in. I recommend removing as much of the seeds and membrane as you can at this stage. Set them off to the side. When the paste is cooking on the stove later, you can taste it and gradually add some of the seeds back in to increase the heat. The paste will keep for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

 

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 3rdtime August 5, 2011 at 9:37 am

Thanks for the in-depth article. Love that you bought and tasted some of the brands out there already. Tomorrow I plan my 3rd attempt at this paste thus how I found your site (google) – wanting to do some more research about it.
This is the first recipe I have seen with vinegar.

I pretty much have the taste and texture down (my fav brand is also Mae Praenom) but 2 problems:

1. When making tom yum goong after adding it (or test in a bit of hot water) it doesn’t have that nice orange-red oil that floats on top. Even when it sits in a bowl it doesn’t have any oil that separates. I’m thinking I need to increase my oil a bit? I did skimp trying to keep it as healthy as possible. How does yours look when added to hot liquid?

2. What floated was lots of black bits – which I believe was the black parts from the roasted chilies (looked similar to yours in the image; some parts dark red, with some blackish). I’m thinking I can’t have any black on my chilies :( (healthier but lose that nice fragrance) ?

Reply

2 jessica August 5, 2011 at 11:14 am

Thank you for your comments – it is interesting to hear from someone else trying to make this at home. To your first question, I have had the same result when I use my homemade nam prik pao in soups. I don’t get the oil rising to the top of the paste and I don’t get an evenly distributed orange-red oil in soup. I think it is both because I use less oil, as you noted, but also that I did not use dried shrimp. I have been told that the shrimp produce a lot of the oil that you see in tom yam goong. I had the same question about the blackened bits in the paste! I saw some recipes that recommended scraping off all of the blackened peels of the pepper before making the paste, but I find that the charred flavor from the blackened peels is part of what I really like about nam prik pao! Despite all that, I did like the homemade version better than those that I buy from the store. It just tasted more like the vegetables and less processed. Please let me know how your version turns out and if you are able to resolve some of those issues – I would love to continue adapting my recipe!

Reply

3 3rdtime August 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Thank you for the prompt reply Jessica, and sorry for my tardy reply.
I have solved both of my problems.
I doubled the quantity of my oil; I think I just wasn’t using enough to the ratio of my ingredients and I fried the ‘dried chilies’ in the oil (Canola, medium-low heat) until they were quite dark but no signs of black. (Previously I dry toasted them in a wok until just barely black).
The oil after frying the dried chilies turned the perfect color you see floating in the soups.
When adding my nam prik pao to hot liquid it did its thing :D
Regarding the dried shrimps- I have used them in all attempts.

An idea I thought for your ‘roasted’ chili peppers (or any veggies) you could try that I do when preparing veggies that I want the charred taste-
Char them directly over the open flame of your stove top until the skin is black.
Wrap them in foil (or a banana leaf stapled closed or sealed with a skewer) and roast them on the open flame (flame lowered), or in a dry wok, or in your oven until tender.

Leave them sealed in the foil/leaf until cool enough to handle, and then remove all blackened bits.
You’ll have the charred taste cooked into the peppers without any black unhealthy bits floating around :) .

Reply

4 jessica August 13, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thank you so much for note about your success! I’ll have to give it another try using your method!

Reply

5 jessica August 13, 2011 at 9:00 am

Thank you so much for note about your success! I’ll have to give it another try using your method!

Reply

6 Tim February 23, 2012 at 1:12 am

Hi Jessica – I tried to make this yesterday and wow, I think I have the wrong sized chilis. I bought the little ones at a Thai market in Los Angeles labeled “Thai chilis”. They burnt to a crisp in 40 minutes! Is there a bigger size – or better – a Thai name I can throw around at the market? Thanks for the recipe!

Reply

7 jessica February 24, 2012 at 7:14 am

Tim – I’m so glad that you dropped me a note, and so sorry to hear about the mix-up. You are right – I suspect that you got the smaller (and much hotter) type of Thai chilis, called Bird’s Eye Chilis. For this recipe I used a Thai variety of chili that resembles a serrano chili both in heat factor and in size. They are called “prik chee fan”. The should be 4-6 inches long, but I find that the larger they are, the less spice they hold. I have found that you can always get the roasted pepper flavor and then add in spice using cayenne or ground red peppers. Although I haven’t yet tried it, you could probably make a tasty approximation of nam prik pao by using regular roasted red peppers and adding in spice to taste at the end. Hope this helps!

Reply

8 neil mcginnis March 12, 2014 at 4:29 am

I don’t see anywhere to buy these peppers you are referring to.. prik chee fan.
I have been to Hmart in dallas which is a huge asian store and they only had small birds eye thai chili peppers that were so hot they were almost inedible.. There is a local restaurant called Royal Sichuan that uses these chilis when stir frying to create an AMAZING flavor and I asked if they could sell me just the dried chilis but they said no.

Reply

9 Eatliveburp March 15, 2013 at 8:25 am

I made a small batch of this today for Thai fried rice and it was absolutely divine. Thanks for doing all the hard work and sharing this wonderful recipe.

Reply

10 Jess March 15, 2013 at 8:51 am

Thank you so much for taking the time to stop in and let me know! I have a soft-spot for Thai fried rice, so I can never have too much nam prik pao around.

Reply

11 Peter Minde August 20, 2013 at 12:13 am

I intend to try this recipe out. Have you got, or can you recommend a recipe for bird’s eye chilies? Thank you,
Peter Minde recently posted..Ski Bounding or Roller Skiing, Which is Better?My Profile

Reply

12 Jess August 21, 2013 at 7:27 am

Hi Peter – have you ever made Gai Pad Krapow? It is, by far, my favorite recipe to make with bird’s eye chilis! http://www.inquiringchef.com/2012/12/08/thai-chicken-with-holy-basil-gai-pad-grapow-i-e-what-to-eat-in-a-thai-airport/

Reply

13 pragna August 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Do you know a brand of Chilli paste without the shrimp or any other fish in it? I am vegetarian, and do not like the fishy smell.

Reply

14 Jess August 26, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I’ve never had a store-bought version without the fish or shrimp, Pragna, but I know that there are some on the market. If you find a good one, please do let me know – others have asked me this as well! I wish I had an answer.

Reply

15 neil mcginnis March 12, 2014 at 4:34 am

yea i also do not like all my food tasting like fish… I prefer that only my fish taste like fish and even then it’s conditional. lol

Reply

16 Alaa Alazem September 22, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Dear,

Thank you for your recipe. The information included is very useful especially that I need pepper paste for an Arabic recipe. So could you tell me which brand is available in supermarkets in Thailand without being too spicy.

Thanks

Reply

17 Michele Taylor October 14, 2013 at 12:20 am

This recipe is gorgeous! So much better than the jars. Excellent!

Reply

18 jan gridley January 14, 2014 at 5:05 am

cannot tolerate all the heat, can I successfully roast red bell peppers and ust it instead of the chili peppers?

Reply

19 Jess January 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Hi Jan – you can definitely use red bell peppers instead. The result will, of course, be a bit different than a traditional nam prik pao, but I suspect it will be no less delicious.

Reply

20 Charlie January 25, 2014 at 3:58 am

Hi Jessica, what a beautiful blog, thank you!
I’m going to attempt this recipe in Brazil because we’re severely deprived of good Thai food here, but my problem is finding the ingredients, particularly the Tamarind paste. If I substitute for distilled vinegar would I need 1/2 a cup in total, or just 1/4 cup already specified?
Thanks

Reply

21 Jess January 25, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Hi Charlie – I’m not sure how well the distilled vinegar will work as a substitute – tamarind paste has a very unique flavor that is hard to replicate. But, you’re right that distilled vinegar (or maybe even fresh lemon or lime juice) might add some acidity that can add another dimension. I’d actually start by just adding the vinegar about 1 Tablespoon at a time and tasting the finished product. I doubt you’ll need much – it’s sourness is much more intense than that of tamarind paste. Hope that helps a bit!

Reply

22 Charlie February 7, 2014 at 3:11 am

Thanks Jess! We have plenty of limes here so I might try that and see what happens

Reply

23 Mike March 5, 2014 at 6:40 am

Interesting recipe, but I don’t see salt in the list of ingredients? I presume you use fish sauce, but precisely how much?

Reply

24 Jess March 5, 2014 at 9:39 am

Hi Mike – the recipe is vegetarian, so no fish sauce is used. I didn’t add salt either as it really didn’t need it – the vinegar flavor gives it dimension, but certainly I would recommend adding salt to taste. If I make a more traditional version, I add dried shrimp and those add a salty, fishy dimension. Hope that helps!

Reply

25 Amie August 15, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Can I use this paste for tom yum with prawns?

Reply

26 3rdtime August 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Thank you for the prompt reply Jessica, and sorry for my tardy reply.
I have solved both of my problems.
I doubled the quantity of my oil; I think I just wasn’t using enough to the ratio of my ingredients and I fried the ‘dried chilies’ in the oil (Canola, medium-low heat) until they were quite dark but no signs of black. (Previously I dry toasted them in a wok until just barely black).
The oil after frying the dried chilies turned the perfect color you see floating in the soups.
When adding my nam prik pao to hot liquid it did its thing :D
Regarding the dried shrimps- I have used them in all attempts.

An idea I thought for your ‘roasted’ chili peppers (or any veggies) you could try that I do when preparing veggies that I want the charred taste-
Char them directly over the open flame of your stove top until the skin is black.
Wrap them in foil (or a banana leaf stapled closed or sealed with a skewer) and roast them on the open flame (flame lowered), or in a dry wok, or in your oven until tender.

Leave them sealed in the foil/leaf until cool enough to handle, and then remove all blackened bits.
You’ll have the charred taste cooked into the peppers without any black unhealthy bits floating around :) .

Reply

27 jessica February 24, 2012 at 7:14 am

Tim – I’m so glad that you dropped me a note, and so sorry to hear about the mix-up. You are right – I suspect that you got the smaller (and much hotter) type of Thai chilis, called Bird’s Eye Chilis. For this recipe I used a Thai variety of chili that resembles a serrano chili both in heat factor and in size. They are called “prik chee fan”. The should be 4-6 inches long, but I find that the larger they are, the less spice they hold. I have found that you can always get the roasted pepper flavor and then add in spice using cayenne or ground red peppers. Although I haven’t yet tried it, you could probably make a tasty approximation of nam prik pao by using regular roasted red peppers and adding in spice to taste at the end. Hope this helps!

Reply

28 Tim February 24, 2012 at 8:05 am

Oh, that’s awesome, Jessica. I’ll try to pick up the prek chee fan – I’ve been trying to “veganize” a recipe for my wife for a couple weeks now, and I think this is the missing piece!

Reply

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