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Laap seasoning mix naam phrik laap, also referred to as the “black chili paste (น้ำพริกดำ ; nam phrik dam)” due to its dark color, is at the heart and soul of Northern Thai-style cuisine. It is deployed as the primary seasoning agent in various dishes including laap dishes, salads and curries, as well as dipping sauces, and grilled foods.
The pungency and strength of naam phrik laap are milder in Chiang Mai and the western part of Northern Thailand. In the eastern part of the north, especially in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Phayao, and Nan – places that were historically in proximity to the spice trade routes – the naam phrik laap is bolder and belligerent.
These days, naam phrik laap is commercially available under various brand names and feature a variety of spice combinations and flavor intensities to suit any palate. In the past, however, the responsibility for producing naam phrik laap was borne by skilled, talented individuals with years of experience. As a result, naam phrik laap recipes can easily contain over twenty ingredients, which contribute and define elements across the spectrum of the flavor profile.
That includes spiciness and saltiness, umami base, fat and smoke elements, aromatics, astringent agents, and a complicated spice mix that seizes the front of the palate with bitter numbness. The chilies’ heat and the spices’ numbness hit the mouth with a tingling, bitter, and somewhat electric sensation.
It is practical to divide the role of the naam phrik laap in the flavor profile into four main elements. Each should be further fine-tuned, as if seasoning a dish.
- Saltiness – naam phrik laap offers only a baseline of saltiness. The dish should be further seasoned salty with more naam phrik laap, salt, fermented shrimp paste, fish sauce, or fish sauce infused with palate-numbing spices.
- Spiciness – ideally, naam phrik laap should not be too spicy. If more heat is desired, one can always add ground roasted dried chilies.
- Numbness and palate tingling sensations – the spice mainly responsible for the numbing sensation of naam phrik laap is makwen (มะแขว่น) (Zanthozylum limonella Alston). Makwen is among the ingredients used in naam phrik laap as well as among the laap spices mix. Ideally, naam phrik laap should only cause a mild tingling sensation and, while seasoning the dish, the levels can be increased by adding more makwen or makwen-infused fish sauce.
- General spice aroma – once the dish is at the desired spiciness saltiness levels and triggers the desired levels of numbness, further tuning of the fragrance is conducted by adding more of the laap spices mix.
Therefore, I advise always using freshly made naam phrik laap; and, considering each of the above properties, relying solely on naam phrik laap is not sufficient. One should always gauge and adjust the dish for the desired levels of saltiness, spiciness, numbness, and aroma.
Furthermore, this approach also allows the adjustment of the dish’s aroma and pungency to accommodate meats with a strong smell or gamier taste.
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- 3 tablespoons dried Thai bird’s eye chili (phrik kee noo) (พริกขี้หนููแห้ง) roasted to 50-60% char
- 2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้) roasted to 20% char
- 3/4 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย) roasted
- 1 1/4 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง) roasted
- 2 1/4 tablespoons galangal (ข่า) roasted to 20% char
- 3/4 tablespoon ginger (ขิง) roasted to 20% char
- 1/2 tablespoon Northern style fermented shrimp paste (white kapi)(กะปิกุ้ง)
- 2 teaspoons Northern laap spices mix (ชุดเครื่องเทศสำหรับลาบเหนือ)
- 1 teaspoon makwen (มะแขว่น) (Zanthozylum limonella Alston)
Prepare the chilies
- In a pan, char roast the dried chilies to a 50-60% char. Set aside.
- Pound the chilies to a fine powder.
Prepare the roasted ingredients
- Bruise the lemongrass, char roast it whole, peel the thick outer layers, and slice the inner softer part. Set aside.
- Slice the ginger into thick juliennes and char roast in a pan to a 20% char. The ginger is sometimes sun-dried before roasting.
- Slice mature galangal into thick juliennes and char roast in a pan to 20% char. The galangal is sometimes sun-dried before roasting.
- In a pan, char roast the garlic unpeeled until cooked.
- In a pan, char roast the shallots unpeeled until cooked. Note: since the shallots contain reducing sugars that intensify the umami flavor base, you can introduce them roasted as described, or deep-fried, boiled, fresh, and even pickled.
- In a mortar and pestle, combine the roasted lemongrass, ginger, galangal, garlic, and shallots and pound to a smooth paste.
Combining the paste
- Add a Northern-style white fermented shrimp paste to the roasted ingredients paste.
- Add the laap spices mix.
- Add makwen.
- Add dried chilies.
- Pound all the ingredients into a fine paste.
Roasting and drying the paste
- Transfer the paste to a pan. Roast the paste over low heat, constantly stirring until it has completely dried up. Good heat control is essential in order to not burn the naam phrik laap. From time to time, remove from the heat and continue roasting using the residual heat alone.