Nam Pla Prik น้ำปลาพริก – The Ubiquitous Thai Table Sauce

This simple table sauce is so commonplace — lowly even — in the Thai households that it’s almost ridiculous for me to blog about it. A blog post on this sauce is in many ways like a blog post on table salt and pepper. And I bet this post, just like a few similar ones in the past, will bring my way many have-you-run-out-of-stuff-to-blog-about-HUH? email and voice messages from my friends and family in Thailand.

Oh, well.

My only justification is that although nam pla prik(RTGS: nam pla phrik), or sometimes called prik nam pla, is considered ordinary, its presence cannot be ignored. This meal accompaniment is one of the most ubiquitous items in the Thai cuisine. Everywhere you look, you see it. On make-shift tables set up by street food vendors. On the tables of sit-down type of restaurants. On your family dining table. On the seasoning table in every corner of every food court. In a tiny bowl that comes with the plate of fried rice you order. In a little rubber band-fastened plastic bag nestled inside your fried rice to-go box.

You see it everywhere.

I was tempted to call it a dipping sauce, but that somehow feels weird to me as it’s not something we dip stuff into in the manner of buffalo wings and bleu cheese dip. If anything, nam pla prik acts more like a flavor enhancer (mainly for rice or rice-based dishes). You take a spoonful of it and drizzle over or mix into whatever it is that’s on your plate. If your fried rice is a little bland, or could use some heat, a dab of fish sauce and a few pieces of fresh chilies would be of tremendous help. Sometimes, having a little bit of the vibrant kick of fresh chilies along with rice and curry makes for a very pleasant meal.

Most Thai food vendors aren’t so sensitive when it comes to the customers adding seasonings to their food; most of them don’t take it personally. If anything, they seem to encourage self-customization. Anyone who has eaten street noodles in Thailand is familiar with the seasoning set that’s always there on the table for people to use, not to visually admire from afar or meditate on as you eat your noodles.

When my mother was alive, if we had invited any of you guys to our house for a meal, I can assure you that the infamous Joy Luck Club scene, where the (Chinese) mother is greatly insulted by her daughter’s (white) boyfriend naïvely adding soy sauce to her signature dish, would never happen at our house. The members of my entire clan, thankfully, are beyond laid-back. My mother would’ve definitely put a bowl of nam pla prik in the middle of the table for everyone just in case. And if you actually used it, she would never have taken offense.

Notice that when you eat at a Thai restaurant, sometimes Thai diners will ask their server for a bowl of nam pla prik — a reasonable request that is in most cases gladly fulfilled with no extra charge. In some restaurants, once they know you’re Thai, they bring out a bowl of nam pla prik along with your order without you even asking. When I see non-Thais request a bowl of nam pla prik at a Thai restaurant, I automatically assume they either live with a Thai or have lived in Thailand for extended periods of time.

I’m not much of a nam pla prik addict in the sense that I don’t automatically add it to everything that’s put in front of me. I only use it when it really makes a difference. In fact, I can only think of one thing that I refuse to eat without a bowl of nam pla prik nearby: rice and soft- or hard-boiled eggs. Take nam pla prik away from the picture and the whole thing becomes pointless to me. Nothing else can take the place of nam pla prik in that situation, not even my beloved Maggi or Sriracha. But in most situations, I can easily get by without it.

Each person approaches the stuff differently, though. Many consider nam pla prik to be the side item without which a meal is not complete. Someone I know can get really cranky if she makes herself a bowl of rice topped with crispy fried eggs and sits down to enjoy it only to find the last person who finished the last batch of nam pla prik didn’t replenish the stock. This could cause friction in the household.

Each person (or family) has his own idea of what nam pla prik consists of. I’m a minimalist, so as long as there are thin slices of fresh bird’s eye chillies floating happily in a pool of aromatic fish sauce, I’m happy. In fact, I would say that those two components are the bare essentials of nam pla prik., i.e. as long as you have fish sauce and fresh chillies, you have nam-pla prik. After all, the name nam-pla prik is made by sticking two nouns together: nam pla (fish sauce) and prik (chilli). But it wouldn’t be uncommon to see sliced garlic or shallots floating in there as well.

Try asking for nam pla prik next time you visit a Thai restaurant and look for that subtle ah!-you-eat-like-we-do expression on your server’s face. And if they actually give you a bowl of it gratis, please tip them well and support their business for that is a sign of hospitality — of them welcoming you into their “home.”

40 Responses to Nam Pla Prik น้ำปลาพริก – The Ubiquitous Thai Table Sauce

  1. OysterCulture February 18, 2010 at 3:12 am #

    Oh, I’m testing this one out soon. There’s a Thai restaurant around the corner that needs to be investigated. Now I have the perfect excuse. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Manggy February 18, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    Hah! Yes, we always have fish sauce and chilies. I guess we always have nampla prik! (I can’t help but think of the organization that shall not be named, when I hear nampla though)
    I love The Joy Luck Club – one of my favorite movies. I think I’m more like the Chinese mum though 🙂

  3. Cate February 18, 2010 at 5:26 am #

    I LOVE this stuff. Ever since we got back from Thailand my husband insists on having it on the table at all times!

  4. Jenn February 18, 2010 at 5:45 am #

    Namplaa is definitely a staple in my house. Now if I can just sneak in some chilies in there then I’m all set.

  5. unclevinny February 18, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    I’m glad you have the little audio file to reassure me that I’ll be saying it right. I will try to remember to ask for this next time, although I seem to mostly order things that don’t have a lot of rice. I looove the noodles.

  6. Ed Schenk February 18, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    I enjoyed this post.Great read.Thanks!

  7. 5 Star Foodie February 18, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Next time we go to our favorite Thai restaurant, I’m definitely asking for nampla prik! Maybe we’ll go tonight 🙂

  8. Anonymous February 18, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    I understand that there are a lot of variations on this but is there any chance we can get a basic recipe or set of ratios of this?

  9. Leela February 18, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    Anonymous – Sure. Based on my personal taste (other people’s mileages may vary), a good start would be 1 part lime juice: 1 part thinly-sliced fresh bird’s eye chillis: 3 parts fish sauce. That would be the basic. (You can even omit the lime juice altogether.)

    If you want the version shown here, to make roughly 1/2 cup, mix together 1/3 cup fish sauce, juice of half a lime, 3 tablespoons of thinly sliced shallots (peeled), and 2 tablespoons of thinly sliced garlic (peeled). I like to let the mixture sit at room temperature for an hour or so before using — the shallots and garlic taste a little less “raw” that way.

    This can be kept in the refrigerator for days.

  10. lisaiscooking February 20, 2010 at 12:23 am #

    This was so interesting! Good to know it’s not offensive to add some seasoning at the table, and I’ll definitely request some next time I’m at a Thai restaurant.

  11. Anonymous February 20, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    When I’m home in America I’m surprised at how many folks who claim to love and know Thai food have never even used namplaa, much less the prik version. Don’t they ever wonder what all those condiments are doing there on the restaurant table? I do not recall the garlic version being as common a few years ago in Thailand as it seems to be today, but perhaps w/ too many Singha I just missed it. All versions are YUM.

  12. dhanes420 April 11, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    Yum! I usually add lime juice, palm sugar and water (the water ’cause i usually go overboard with the nampla). Do you add these too?

  13. Leela April 11, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    dhanes420 – No, mine is very simple. In fact, just the chilli and nampla would be more than enough for me. Even the version I show here is considered quite elaborate. Most people don’t even bother with the garlic and shallot. The more you add, the further away it moves from the realm of nampla prik to namjim (dipping sauce).

    But the palm sugar and lime juice combo sounds really good. I’m now craving crispy fried fish, green mango salad, with this thing on the side.

  14. dhanes420 April 18, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    Yes! I deep fried smelt Italian style and used nampla prik as my condiment. Wife thought i was nuts until she tried it.

    Would you have any problem with me replacing my twitter/skype/icq/aim avatar with your picture of nampla prik instead of mine? Have had a couple of unitiated say that my pic was subpar. As if they knew!

  15. dhanes420 April 18, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    I remember a cambodian gf that used a very sour sauce on green mango that was excellent…anything similar in Thai cooking?

  16. Leela April 18, 2010 at 12:22 am #

    Deep-fried smelt and nampla prik = awesome.
    Sure, feel free to replace your Twitter avatar with my nampla prik. I don’t think it was subpar, though. 🙂

  17. Leela April 18, 2010 at 12:33 am #

    Yam Mamuang (green mango salad) perhaps? The easiest way to make it is mix grated green mangoes with some of the nampla prik (use the jacked up version that has both thinly-sliced shallots and garlic). Use is to top any crispy fried meat stuff. Deep fried fish goes particularly well with green mango salad.

    Hmm … an idea for a new blog post? 🙂

  18. dhanes420 April 18, 2010 at 1:33 am #

    oh wow! i am salivating. I have my first two bird dropping chili plants growing, and my first row of Thai basil growing. The basil seeds aren’t doing too good, only got 4 plants out of about 40 seeds. The Genovese basil are going nuts though…I sowed in early March in Florida; too cold? I can get green papaya for Som Tam, but green mango might be hard.

  19. Leela April 18, 2010 at 1:40 am #

    Bird’s eye. Not bird dropping! Go for euphemism! 🙂
    Try South Asian grocery stores for green mangoes. Indian markets in particular often carry them.

  20. Holly20002 August 5, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    Hi, Leela! What’s Nam jim? Is it similar to Nampla Prik?

  21. Leela August 6, 2010 at 3:40 am #

    Holly – Yup, but with more ingredients. Actually, with shallots added in, my nampla prik is already borderline nam jim.

  22. Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    Love this stuff; my family’s version has a habit of looking rather spicy, if only because it’s hard to always have fresh chilies on hand, so we usually either dry them or freeze them, and then when we want to make it, we grind it and add into the nam plaa.

  23. Anonymous May 19, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    Thank you so much for this blog! I was very confused because of the variations in calling the sauce. I always ask for this sauce and love it, but there was this one restaurant I went to that mashed up the ingredients. I seen many videos that do this but whenever I ask for the sauce at a restaurant I never get that version! Maybe its a different sauce but I don’t think it is namjim. I’ve also seen a mashed sauce called nam prik kapi and wondered if that was the same as nam pla prik. Someone help! I am addicted to the mashed version and my life has never been the same since. Priknamplaholics Anonymous.

  24. Admin May 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    PA – Nampla prik, from my experience, doesn’t come in so many forms. The name kind of puts a limit on what can go into it. Nam jim and nam prik, on the other hand, are generic terms and can apply to literally hundreds of different things.

    Namprik kapi has shrimp paste in it and it’s eaten more as a relish — a dish in its own right, really — not as a table sauce like this.

    What’s in the mashed up version that you like, and how come you don’t consider it a namjim?

  25. Anonymous May 20, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    Thank you for responding. I dont know all the ingredients, my dad is really good at being able to taste all the details, but I just know it tastes really good. I’ll ask him what he thinks when I can. Mashing the peppers in the fish sauce brings out the flavor so much more and disperses much more evenly on dishes. I think I have misunderstood what namjim means. It means sauce right? Maybe the sauce or relish is namprik kapi and not nampla prik. I will try to order namprik kapi next time. I will try to give you the ingredients my dad thinks are in the sauce/relish later. Thanks again.

  26. Anonymous June 1, 2012 at 4:49 am #

    Thai food has become a favorite in our household nam pla prik is something we have tryed to always seems to be to strong in fish sauce is there a brand of fish sauce that is more suitable?

  27. Admin June 1, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Anon – Scale (tra chang) is a good brand. Or Mega Chef, if you can find it. But, really, if you’re the type that don’t like consuming fish sauce straight in this manner (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it), even the best brand of fish sauce will be too strong.

  28. Wallum July 8, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Hi, I bought (from a market in Australia) a paste called namprik taipla. It is homemade, and so thick i can hold the container upside down without spilling any. It has “taipla, lemongrass, fish, tumeric, pepper, cashew nut, tamarind” in it. It smells great, but I’m not sure what to do with it? Use it as a curry paste? Have you heard of this? Thanks
    Also, can I keep nam prik pla without a fridge?

  29. Admin July 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    Wallum – Tai pla (literally “fish kidney” but it’s actually fish innards) is a southern fermented fish sauce which is thicker, murkier, stronger than the kind of fish sauce that is used in the Central Plains (i.e. the kind that is used here). And what you’re referring to is a ready-made southern-style relish/sauce/dip that contains tai pla as the main ingredient. You can use that as a sauce, to be mixed with the rice along with a mild dish like Thai omelet, or serve as a relish/dip along with fresh raw vegetables.

    If you’re not used to it, this is going to be a major acquired taste, though.


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