Often the keystone for Thai dishes, there are an array of pastes and sauces that differ from person, to village, to region and across all countries in the sub-continent. However, the primary one is Shrimp Paste, known as Kapi in Thailand. Fermented, dried, ground and salted shrimp, which is unrecognisable from the original ingredient is processed over several days and varies in its colour and consistency throughout the Kingdom and the region. From a clear liquid to thick blocks covering a spectrum of colour from grey to Pâté pink and purple through to chocolate brown, it is typically pungent in taste and aroma but can also be sweet. In Southern Thailand, Tai Pla is the variant, made from fermented fish entrails rather than shrimp, but producing the same flavoursome balance and power.
Another staple ingredient is Fish Sauce or Nam Pla. Aromatic, strong and salty, it is essential to almost every savoury dish and can be found as a standalone condiment on restaurant tables infused with chopped chilli along with vinegar, sugar and chilli flakes which echo the four fundamental flavours of sweet, sour, spicy and bitter.
By adding some or all base ingredients such as nam pla, chilli, garlic, shallots, coriander to the Kapi, Thai cooks begin to create what is known as Nam Prik, an all-encompassing term to describe pastes that are used for dipping or as the building blocks of most Thai dishes. Again, usage and variety is massive and numerous from region to village. They are an opaque paste consistency with the clearer variety being known as Nam Chim. These ingredients are ground and mashed together using a mortar and pestle to either a coarse or pulped consistency.
When presented with the opportunity, it is recommended to try these pastes with the cucumber, cabbage or long beans that usually accompany them. By doing so, one can properly understand some of the intricate array of flavours involved before they have been diluted into creating a curry or soup dish. There may be an overwhelming pong and it is likely to be of a colour unappealing too, but try to move beyond that and give it a go – just a little is enough.
It should go without saying that the Soy and Oyster sauces used in almost everyday cooking came directly from China and quite correctly, embraced.
“From simple ingredients, magic can be made”
It may not be an exact science, but in some cases Thai cuisine can be more impressive than alchemy. Subtle variations in ingredients, in quantities, in preparation and in the cooking method are able to produce vastly different outcomes. Throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom, proud people are cooking with love to produce their own take on what we now know as “classic” Thai dishes.
Stir fries, soups and curries can be literally reinvented with tweaks and twists and there is always the obligatory set of condiments available to redefine even further. Trying some of these raw and refined ingredients at base level will give you that crucial understanding of some of the individual flavours. Your palate can be taught new tricks and tastes and you will also delight in the harmony between the flavours. If in doubt, start all over again – with food this good, there is no time wasted.