Something you’ll see in Thailand in any restaurant or shop that serves noodles is a standard, (4-container) Thai condiment set. I’d like to explain what’s in it and why it’s there. (I’ve already written a blog on one of the other things you will usually find on the table in Thai Salt and Pepper.)
Perhaps the most important thing to know about Thai cooking (I say this as a quasi-ignorant fahrang, or perhaps a fahrang who knows just enough to make what a Thai would consider to be a really dumb statement) is how to balance flavors, what Kasma talks about in her article Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors. For a practical exercise, see Balancing Flavors: An Exercise. If you know how to balance flavors to get a Thai taste, you are no longer dependent on recipes and you can fix recipes that don’t quite work right; see my blog Following Thai Recipes.
(Click on an image to see a larger version.)
What does this have to do with Thai condiment sets? Well, every time a Thai orders noodles, they get an opportunity to harmonize flavors for themselves, using that condiment set.
Thai condiment sets come in many shapes and materials but whether they are made from metal, plastic, ceramic or glass, the basics are the same: usually 4 containers (sometimes 3 or 5) with spoons on a stand. The containers usually have a lid. In some noodle shops there won’t be a condiment set on each table: there will be 2 or 3 in the shop that are moved between tables as the noodles are served.
Although, what you will find in the 4 containers will vary slightly from place to place, here’s what you can expect to see:
- One of the containers invariably is a source of sour flavor, either chillies in vinegar or a lime-based chilli sauce.
- There will nearly always be sugar in one of them. Although westerners often think of sugar only as a source of sweet, it’s main importance comes as a way to balance and bring out the different flavors, as Kasma talks about in her blog Principles of Flavor Harmony
- A source of spicy-hot, such as roasted, dried chillies or roasted chillies in oil
- There may be a container devoted to fish sauce, for salty flavor, although in many places this will be available as a bottle of fish sauce (large or small) on the table. On occasion I’ve seen soy sauce instead of fish sauce.
- There will often be chopped peanuts to add to the noodles for texture and flavor
Certain noodle dishes are always accompanied by a specific condiment; such Pad Thai, served with a slice of lime, or Rahd Nah (Pan-Fried Fresh Rice Noodles Served with Sauce), which get green chilli rounds (in the States, Kasma uses green Serrano chillies) in vinegar. Duck Noodles are often served with their own special sauce; when Kasma makes her Anise-Cinnamon Duck Soup Noodles (Gkuay Dtiow Nahm Bped Dtoon) the sauce she makes to serve with it is made from two kinds of chilli peppers, garlic, lime, vinegar, fish sauce and sugar.
Whatever is found in the set, the principle is the same: the diner flavors the noodles the way he or she likes them. Often in noodle shops I’ve been served noodles with very little added to the broth, which, tasting a bit bland, calls for a bit more adjustment. On other occasions, the broth is sufficiently salty but lacking in spiciness or sourness. It always pays to taste the noodles first and then decide what you want to add. One time when I blithely added several spoons of chilli flakes fried in oil to some Northern-Style Curried Noodles (Kao Soi) and found out that they were served plenty spicy to begin with. It can sometimes take several different additions followed by tastings before I get a dish exactly the way I like.
My own theory (I should run this by Kasma some time) is that Thais are generally in a better place to learn how to harmonize flavors in dishes because they’ve been doing it all their lives every time they order a noodle dish.
The above condiment set has been made from drinking glasses on a tray and has two glasses with different sour-chilli sauce (at the top), one with peanuts, another with dried chillies and another with sugar. There’s a small bottle of fish sauce in the middle. It’s from a noodle shop on Sukhumvit Road just above Soi 55 (Thong Lo) serving noodles with fish balls.
The word for condiment set is “chood kreuang broong – ชุคเดรื่องปรุง. When asking for a set to flavor your noodles just ask for “kreaung broong” – เดรื่องปรุง – meaning flavorings.
Next time you’re in Thailand, look around for a condiment set to buy so you can serve noodles the Thai way in your own home. Chatuchak market in Bangkok is a great place to find sets of all varieties. (See the picture of the ceramic set, above.)
Written by Michael Babcock, January 2011