There is a scene in the movie “Pretty Woman” (have you ever heard of it?) where Julia Roberts (do you know who she is?) is having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Richard Gere (my mom’s boyfriend). This woman met Richard Gere the night before while wearing a tie-dyed dinner napkin and Woody Harrelson’s toupee from “True Detective”, and now he is taking her to a French restaurant with waiters and everything. That’s really realistic. And then this douchecanoe goes and orders the escargots, even though his date has no freaking clue how to use her cutlery and one of the dinner companions (the “hothead” grandson who plays polo) has clearly cottoned on to Richard Gere’s game and ordered a dinner salad. Why didn’t Richard Gere order her the salad too? Is he really that attached to the prix fixe menu? Isn’t he rich enough to order a la carte? That is the moment when I figured out this movie was complete horseshit. Let your hooker order her own meal, Richard Gere!
I was thinking about this because, well, there are lots of mealtime etiquette thingies that even I, with all the many many meals that I have eaten, have no clue about. When faced with the mushroom chili dip you see above, I did what I usually do and piled all the crap I could find onto my plate, crowned with a healthy heaping of aforementioned nam prik. My dining companions snorted in my face. “Steady on!” they basically said, in Thai. “That chili dip will still be there in a few minutes’ time”.
“Thais are very fastidious about their manners while eating,” said one person, trying to be nice. “That’s is the only thing Thais do properly”. (Again, horseshit).
Oh, but wait. Let me start at the beginning.
I love nam prik. But I am extremely lazy. So it’s rare that I will make my own, preferring instead to pester harried-but-obliging wet market vendors or darken the doorstep of the occasional Thai restaurant in order to get my chili dip fix. It’s just that there are so few dishes that are as immediate — spicy, tart, funky in that fermented, garbage-y, wrong-side-of-garlic sense that Thai food is known for — as this one. Strange, then, that it’s not such a well-known dish once you find yourself out of Thailand.
It’s also so pretty and deceptively obliging: that little dollop, that big taste. Always surrounded by its various little accomplices, all chosen to offset whatever chili dip you’ve decided to guzzle on that particular day: sweet silky tamarind (macaam), sharp peppery roasted banana pepper (nam prik num), the ubiquitous, funkier-than-George-Clinton shrimp paste (gapi), a pillar of the standard Thai meal. In fact, nam prik was such a go-to dish in Thailand that husbands were once said to choose their wives on the sound their mortars and pestles made when pounding out a particular dip (if this were the case today, I can confidently say I would never get married).
So when my friend Chin took me to Nakhon Pathom with the promise of a good meal and a cooking class, you could color me curious. I rarely take cooking classes, because a.) they remind me of the time I was in culinary school, where I was bad and not good and to which I was generally unsuited, and b.) I don’t like to listen for long enough to follow directions (which may explain a. Really, though, why cook and then not eat? Who cares about these so-called “customers”? Let’s not discuss cooking school ever again.) But at Oo Khao Oo Pla (a take on the Thai saying “Nai nam mee pla, nai na mee khao” or “There is fish in the water, there is rice in the fields” aka Thailand is a lucky land of bounty), the friendly chef is happy enough to chat with me as she gives her hand-picked mushrooms a quick stir-fry with sugar and garlic in the wok, and garnishes her thom kloang pla salid (sour soup with smoked dried fish) with freshly plucked tamarind leaves from the tree out back. Better yet, she lets me pound the nam prik hed (mushroom chili dip) into a paste on the dinner table, peppering her commentary on my poor working style with the occasional “pok pok pok” (the sound a mortar and pestle should ideally make).
So with her blessing, I’m giving you this recipe. A tip or two: when you are pounding the shit out of that chili mixture, make sure you do so with intent and malice. Pretend you are Mike Tyson in the ring. Thais may seem all smiley and happy-g0-lucky, but that is because they are getting all their aggressions out on their food.
Nam Prik Hed (makes 4 servings)
- 2 hed fang (large straw mushrooms), cut up
- 4 red bird’s eye chilies and 4 green bird’s eye chilies
- 1 green, 1 orange, and 2 red prik chee fah (chili peppers)
- 5 garlic cloves
- 4-5 shallots
In 1 tsp oil, fry garlic, shallots and sliced chilies in hot wok with mushroom pieces until “dry”, about 5 minutes.
Next, mix the dressing:
- 3-5 tsp fish sauce
- 2-3 tsp sugar
- juice from 2-3 limes
Or, if you are going the vegetarian route, substitute the fish sauce for light soy sauce and salt.
Mix to taste.
Pound your wok mixture with your mortar and pestle. Add “dressing” to taste.