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Naam Prig, Thai Spicy Dipping Sauces

Traditional Thai life depends on the environment surrounding the house, village or town. This is especially true in the countryside for Thailand is still a mainly agricultural nation. Most country-folk depend on farming for their food and income. Many of the crops grown are traditional ones like rice and farming methods are little changed over the generations. Unchanged too are the habits of fishing, hunting and gathering that, along with a few vegetables, supplement the basic diet of sticky rice. In the north of Thailand these supplementary foods are eaten as Naam prig , a spicy dipping sauce that is the univalsal relish of the people of Lanna.

Naam Prig is a food deeply in touch with nature for it changes its taste from season to season according to availability of wild produce. The basic ingredients of almost all types of Naam Prig are chillies, garlic, shallots and salt. Farming communities have ready access to these and to all the other ingredients that go into the pot, but city-dwellers now have to depend on market stalls for their daily dose of Naam Prig.

With the start of the rains comes a season of abundance and the farmers are busily planting rice. The vivid green of the young crop gradually changes to the gold of the grain at harvest time and all the time the rice is threatened by pests. One of these is the rice-field crab, Poo Na . These little crabs are quite easy to catch and are turned into one of the distinctive kinds of Naam Prig of the rainy season, Naam Prig Poo Na . The crabs are pounded into the basic ingredients which, in this case, include a large fresh chilli called Prig Noom . Pla Ra , a kind of fermented fish that deepens the taste may be added too.

After the rains are over, the chill of winter sets in and an altogether heartier and more robust sauce is needed. Naam Prig Ong is made from the basic mix to which is added ground pork and small sweet tomatoes. Eaten with steamed vegetables and Kaeb Moo , fried pork rind, this is a dish to beat the cold. In the past killing a pig was a special event, and all the village would share in the task of making pots and pots of Naam Prig Ong from the ground meat. Nowadays, it is one of the best known of the dipping sauces and is featured at all Khantoke dinners.

As the days lengthen again, and the heat starts to rise, ingredients for the Naam Prig become scarce. Farmers scour the woods for wasp grubs to bring home. These are mashed up into Naam Prig Tua Tor , unusual but rich in protein. Shortage of additives caused the inventive housewives of old to modify the basic ingredients to create a different taste to stimulate the palate in this season of scarcity. By grilling the chillies they made a darker and more virulent sauce called Naam Prig Dum or Naam Prig Phao . The second name has stuck and this is the most widely sold Naam Prig of all.

It is traditional to eat Naam Prig with sticky rice and either steamed or fresh vegetables from the garden or the forest. As with the sauce itself, the choice is dictated by the season, but typical steamed additions would include morning glory (Pak Tam Leung), bean flowers (Dawk Kae ), bamboo shoots (Naw Mai ), bitter gourd (Mara), white gourd (Faak ) and loofah (Buab) together with the mundane cabbage. Raw vegetables used are cucumber (Taeng Gwa), yard-long bean (Tua Faak Yao) and small eggplants (Makheua) together with forest plants like Pak Waen .

Traditional northern Thai cuisine is based around the use of wild foods to produce a seasonal variety of tastes and flavours. It is simple yet satisfying blend of foods from the home garden and from the surrounding woodlands. Despite its simplicity, Naam Prig has a multitude of nuances and there are certainly at least 50 different types with 15 of these readily available at the larger markets. There is Naam Prig Gapi made from shrimp paste and Naam Prig Pla Tu using steamed horse mackerel together with the ever-popular Naam Prig Ong and Naam Prig Noom . But is Naam Prig a once in a lifetime experience, only to be eaten here in Lanna Thai? Not at all because the basic dish can be made in western kitchens and can be embellished using western ingredients with satisfying results.

To make a good Naam Prig Ong a few exotic ingredients are needed, but these are increasingly available in western stores. To make this dish for a small dinner party of 4 to 6 people you will need the following ingredients.

100 grams ground pork 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
200 grams chopped tomatoes 1 or 2 teaspoons of sugar
2 teaspoons shrimp paste (or anchovies) 1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chopped shallots 50 ml oil

Throw the chillies, shrimp paste, shallots, garlic and salt into a blender. Make it into a smooth paste. Add the paste to the tomatoes and pork. Mix by hand. Heat the oil and throw all the ingredients into the pan. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool then eat and enjoy.

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