Citizens! The Sultan of Spice is also the Swami of Sweetness, and rare indeed are the opportunities when the twain shall meet as one – and today’s post is indeed an epic mashup between these two of My titles! Thai cuisine is one of the ultimate examples of a recipe canon that has successfully married sweet with heat and this addictive dipping sauce is perhaps the finest example of how to conjoin the two flavor sensations that I know! Without further ado, allow me to share some history, gastronomy and details on this delightful condiment for the benefit of all of TFD Nation!
Sweet chili sauce (also known as Sweet Thai chili sauce), known as nam chim kai in Thailand (Thai: น้ำจิ้มไก่; lit. ’dipping sauce for chicken’), is a popular chili sauce condiment in Thai, Afghan, Malaysian, and Western cuisine. It is commonly made with red chili peppers (often Fresno chiles, Thai chiles, or red jalapeños), rice wine vinegar, sometimes garlic, sometimes fish sauce, and a sweetening ingredient such as fruit or a refined sugar or honey.
It is popular as a dip in European Chinese restaurant dishes such as prawn toast, egg rolls, lettuce wraps, chicken wings and spring rolls. It can also be purchased in bottle form. In Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, and the United States, “sweet Thai chili sauce” is available as a condiment at many takeaway stores and supermarkets.
As noted in an erudite article I found on khaolakexplorer.com about the history of Thai cuisine:
Since the explosion in tourism to Thailand in the 1980’s Thai food has established a foothold as one of the world’s leading schools of the culinary arts. It is one of the 5 most popular food types globally, the others being Indian, Chinese, French, and Italian. When you visit Thailand, although it is possible to enjoy western food, why bother? You are in the home of one of the world’s great cooking schools, so sit back and enjoy.
Thai food originated with the people who emigrated from the southern Chinese provinces into modern day Thailand many centuries ago. Historically there were many Szechwan influences in Thai cuisine, although over the centuries many other influences have affected Thai food. In a more distant past, Buddhist monk brought an Indian touch, and southern Muslim states influenced the cooking in the south of Thailand.
Much later, Thai food was influenced by European cuisine after contact with Portuguese missionaries and Dutch traders. During these times there were even some influences from the Japanese. Today Thai food is its own, with a special unique blend of the 5 tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy.
Thailand is a big country with a diverse geography, and over the years this has led to the development of regional differences in its style of cuisines. Currently there are 4 distinct styles of cooking in Thailand.
The cooking in northern Thailand is generally milder than in the rest of the country, sticky rice is preferred, traditionally it is kneaded into small balls with the fingers. There is a strong influence from neighbouring Burma with popular dishes like Kaeng Hang Le, a pork curry flavored with ginger, turmeric, and tamarind.
The food in the north east is influenced by Laos; as a general rule the food is highly spiced, and sticky glutinous rice is the preferred staple for north-eastern dishes. Although there are plenty of meat dishes, historically meat was scarce in the villages, and the main source of protein were shrimp and freshwater fish. These were often fermented to increase their shelf life.
The central region offers cuisine that is midway between the north and south, although fragrant Jasmine rice is preferred to the sticky variety. What makes the central region cuisine special is that it is home to royal cuisine. This type of cooking which originated in the royal palace involves much more elaborate meals, put together with complex techniques. It is more of an art form than just regular cooking.
Southern Thai cooking is the most popular outside of Thailand since that is the main tourist region of the country. In southern cuisine there is much more use of coconut milk in many dishes. Coconut replaces Ghee for frying and there is a heavy use of seafood in the dishes. Appetizers in the south use a lot of cashews from local plantations, and coconut flesh as a standard condiment.
I heard Thai food used to be hotter and spicier?
Funnily enough yes, historically the Thai people were very good at “Siam sing” foreign culinary influences. In fact, chili didn’t exist in Thai cuisine until the 16 hundreds, when they were brought over by Portuguese missionaries, who had acquired a taste for them during their forays in South America. As a result, the Thais used more and more heavy spices and the food became hotter and hotter. In more recent times there has been a shift in Thai cooking style with less and less use of heavy spice mixes, and the increase in use of fresh herbs such as lemon grass in most dishes. So yes, over the years Thai food has got less spicy and more herb flavored.
What is Thai food etiquette?
Now – as to Thai sweet chili sauce, it is worth noting that it makes an exceptional dipping condiment for not just Thai food, but many other American dishes as well – for example, chicken wings, used in salad dressings, brushing on a ham before cooking, etc. Most versions of Thai sweet chili sauce outside the country are, frankly, inferior – at least to my palate – as they are insanely sweet, overly ‘gloppy’ and lacking in balanced flavor profiles…mine fits the true bill of fare, Citizens!
First off – make this recipe according to your level of spice tolerance! Pick mild chilis such as red Jalapeño or Fresno to make the chili sauce less hot. To tone down the heat, you can also remove the chili seeds. To make it hot use red Thai birds eye chili – I prefer a mix of Fresno and Thai ‘bird’ chiles for a balanced heat profile. Second, use light brown sugar to add depth or use my preference of palm sugar (buy my preferred brand here). Regular sugar will make the sauce more bright, but I do not like the flavor profile created using white sugar – your palate may disagree.
The big offender in most versions of this sauce is overt use of a starch thickener like cornstarch – I actually prefer to use tapioca powder, and call for a restrained amount to achieve the proper consistency. My preferred brand of Thai tapioca starch may be purchased here. Fish sauce adds umami and a needed ‘funk’, please don’t leave this out – my preferred brand of top-quality fish sauce is this one.
Citizens – this will become your new flavor addiction of the best sort, I promise you! Feel free to enjoy the condiment as it was originally designed, as a dipping sauce for chicken or with any meal you see fit! If you have an asbestos palate and want to try a deadly-hot Thai dipping sauce – this one will assuredly fit your needs! Lastly, if you ever find yourself in a Thai home or restaurant and want it ‘Thai-level’ spicy (that means it blisters paint off any surface it contacts, at least as far as your mouth is concerned), ask for your dish as ‘pet’ – that’s the Thai word for spicy…and remember, YOU WERE WARNED! 😉
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