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Thai Salt and Pepper

Michael Babcock, April 25th, 2010

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

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