Thai Condiment Sets

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.)

Thai Condiment Set
Glass condiment set

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.)

Metal Condiment Set
Metal condiment set

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:

Plastic Condiment Set
Plastic condiment set
  • 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
Ceramic Condiment Set
Elegant ceramic condiment set

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.

Plastic Condiment Set
Another plastic condiment set

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.

Condiment Set of Glasses
Condiment set of glasses
Glasses from the top
Set viewed from the top

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

Food ingredient

Thai Salt and Pepper

Recently while doing a google search I was surprised that no one seems to have written much about “Thai salt and pepper” or, in Thai, prik nahm pla or nahm pla prik.

Thai Salt & Pepper (1)
Thai salt & pepper in Pranburi
Thai Salt & Pepper (2)
Thai salt & pepper, close-up

Thai Salt & Pepper (3)
At a restaurant in the south of Thailand

You might suppose that there’s not a whole lot to say. In the United States on nearly every table you find salt and pepper shakers. I remember that my grandfather (mother’s father) was addicted to salt: when a dish was served, he’d reach for the salt shaker and dash it on each dish, before tasting!

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

The Thai equivalent to these table taste adjusters is called, in Thai, prik nahm pla, or, nahm pla prik. Nahm pla is the Thai word for fish sauce; prik means pepper. So the Thai Salt and Pepper is simply fish sauce to which chopped peppers have been added, nearly always Thai chiles (or bird peppers) – prik kee noo. (See Kasma’s information on Thai Chillies – Prik Kee Noo.) The two different ways of saying it are equivalent to saying “salt and pepper” or “pepper and salt.”

Thai Salt & Pepper (4)
Found at Koh Surin

Kasma describes it thus: “In fact, the Thai equivalent of salt and pepper at the dinner table is a simple mixture of Thai chiles (bird peppers) and fish sauce (3-5 chiles cut into thin rounds with seeds to 2 Tbs. fish sauce.” (In Flavoring Food with Fish Sauce.) You can see from our various pictures, however, that the proportion of chilies to fish sauce varies quite widely – it’s really a matter of individual taste.

Prik nahm pla is used to add both salt and spiciness to a dish. Kasma’s driver, Sun, uses it very frequently. He loves to eat simply plain rice with prik nahm pla. He’ll also use it often to spice up a dish that (to my taste) is already plenty spicy enough!

Thai salt and pepper are found on tables in most noodle shops or store-front eateries. Often in nicer restaurants they’ll also bring it to the table, sometimes in just a small sauce dish or bowl, such as you see here.

Dipping Sauce
Thai dipping sauce with lime

You will sometimes see fish sauce and chillies together with some other ingredient, such as lime or garlic. Strictly speaking it is not prik nahm pla. In some instances it would be a nahm jim or “dipping sauce,” usually meant to be eaten with a specific dish. There are dozens of nahm jim. Prik nahm pla is meant to be put into just about anything to add salt or spice/hot only. Once you add something else, such as a lime, you add a different component (in this case sour) and you can no longer use it on certain dishes; in the case of adding lime, you would no longer be able to use it on certain dishes (such as green curry), which does not call for a sour component. And garlic can overpower many flavors (such as the roasted spices in Massaman curry).

Thai Dipping Sauce
One restaurant's version

Update – March 2011: When writing this blog entry I had a email conversation with Leela, another Thai cookbook author. Kasma has always preferred to refer only to the mixture of Thai chilies and fish sauce as prik nahm pla. Leela believes that it can refer to mixtures that also have other things added, such as garlic or lime. This past February when Kasma requested prik nahm pla at a restaurant on Poda island in Krabi, the mixture they brought was that pictured to the right: chillies, fish sauce, garlic and lime. It would appear that many Thais have a wider definition of prik nahm pla!

When you buy food to go, you’ll often get some Thai salt & pepper in a little plastic bag; the picture below is in a zip-lock bag (a very recent addition) but it is more often in a little bag that’s sealed off with a rubber band. (Thai use of rubber bands is the subject for a blog by itself!)

Thai Salt & Pepper, To Go
Thai salt & pepper, to go
Thai Salt & Pepper (5)
Found at My Choice in Bangkok

Written by Michael Babcock, April 2010