Temptation: Humble and Hot

The New York Times

In Thailand, most meals include nam prik, the pungent paste used as a dip for vegetables and as an embellishment for plain rice. Yet it is still uncommon in New York, where Thai restaurants have thrived for decades. In fact, it has taken 15 years for Sripraphai Tipmanee, the owner of Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens, by almost every measure the top Thai restaurant in town, to put the dish on her rarely changing menu.

The dish appeared in August and is described blandly as “steamed vegetables with shrimp paste chili sauce.” Thais recognized it as containing nam prik gapi, a type of nam prik that contains (among other ingredients common to the Thai cupboard) fermented shrimp paste (gapi), palm sugar and fish sauce.

“I ate this every day when I was young,” said Ms. Tipmanee, explaining that she had not put the dish on her menu because she assumed that Thais wouldn’t order something so many of them made at home. She added it after a Thai customer saw the paste in a to-go container in the restaurant’s refrigerator and asked her to serve it to him at his table. Her nam prik gapi tastes intensely sweet-and-sour, with an undercurrent of funky shrimp paste and a fiery finish. It comes in a small bowl, served along with rice, boiled Chinese watercress, raw long beans and various other vegetables.

One of the oldest Thai dishes, the original nam prik was probably Thai peppercorns mashed with wild onions and fermented soybeans. This rudimentary paste evolved as Thai cooks encountered new ingredients like chilies, brought to Thailand by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, and shrimp paste and fermented fish, which took the place of fermented soybeans. Now countless variations exist in Thailand (and a few in New York, too), differing not just by region, but also by village and cook.

Ms. Tipmanee makes nam prik from scratch almost daily, although she mainly uses commercial curry pastes, enlivening them with fresh roots, chilies and herbs. She does not, however, pound the paste in a mortar and pestle, as ancient Thais did and many home cooks still do. Instead she uses a blender.

“We cannot pound, because we make a big pot like this,” she said, positioning her arms as if she were hugging a tree trunk.

Nam prik gapi is $6.50 at Sripraphai, 64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, Queens; (718) 899-9599.