Thai Three-Flavored Sauce: The Newbie-Friendly Sauce That Can Be Used in Many Dishes

This post will make much more sense to you if you have read a short article which I’ve recently written on five basic Thai ingredients that can be used in hundreds of variations. So, can I invite you to take a brief excursion over there before you continue reading? When you’re done, please come back here; I’ll be waiting for you with a plate of fried fish and a jar of sauce.

In addition to the five items mentioned in that article, there are a few more basic ingredients the mastery of which can turn a newbie Thai cook into a whiz in the kitchen practically overnight. You have met Bruno, my favorite stir-fry sauce mix, who comes in handy when you want to make the type of stir-fries served in Thai restaurants overseas. But I have yet to introduce to you the extremely versatile Thai three-flavored sauce (ซอสสามรส) — your new best friend in the kitchen.

thai sauce recipe

Finely chopped shallots, cilantro stems, garlic, and chilies are what give the sauce body.

In general, unlike Thai sweet chilli sauce or dried chilli dipping sauce, this three-flavored sauce is not used as a dipping sauce; it’s commonly used as a topping (or sometimes coating sauce). You would see it used most often on a crispy fried whole fish (ปลาทอด). Fried fish with three-flavored sauce (ปลาทอดสามรส) is a Thai restaurant menu staple both in and outside of the motherland with which Thai food fans are familiar. What some don’t know is that the sauce can be used in many other ways.

You know how to make this one sauce and you also know how to create many other dishes. I love learning how to cook this way, don’t you?

All my friends know and love the three-flavored sauce very well. They have gone from mooching it from me (since I always have a jar of it in the refrigerator) to making their own and even use it in various dishes that they take to different get-togethers. A vegetarian friend of mine once served some impossibly-crispy batter-fried broccoli lightly tossed with this flavorful sauce at a party to rave reviews. Another friend recently made a huge platter of grilled chicken wings doused in the same sauce for a crowd at a Super Bowl party. These are just two examples I can think off the top of my head.

This versatile sauce is, in fact, one of the sauces that have contributed to the name of this site. (I have never talked about this here before, but you can read all about it on my interview on Saveur Magazine website.)

thai fried fish with sauce
The three flavors here refer to sour, sweet, and salty. Traditionally, the acidity comes from tamarind pulp, the sweetness from palm sugar, and the salinity from fish sauce. The key to a good three-flavored sauce is the balance between the three flavors. Having said that, I realize how subjective “balance” is. I like my three-flavored sauce seasoned exactly as in the recipe below as this is the formula that I have used and liked for the past several years and I have no reason or desire to change it in any way.

I’d suggest that you start off by following the recipe first. Then if you find that you’d like your sauce a bit sweeter, more sour, or more salty, you can tweak it to suit your taste. The chilies contribute to the heat and does not affect the sweet-sour-salty balance, therefore more or fewer of them can be added according to your heat tolerance. The amount specified below may seem like a lot, but once the sauce is cooked down, the end result is a sauce that is only mildly hot.

The recipe below yields 1.5 cups of sauce, but I always make at least 4 times that amount. Feel free to do the same, so you can have a large supply of sauce ready at all times. This sauce freezes and thaws beautifully. Be sure to liven it up with chopped fresh cilantro leaves when you use it in a dish.

For this post, instead of frying up a whole fish, I cut up 1.5 pounds of swai fillets into bite-sized pieces, lightly seasoned them with salt, dredged them in rice flour, and deep-fried them until crispy. The warm fried fish pieces then went into a large mixing bowl, followed by nearly a cup of the prepared three-flavored sauce. I tossed the fish around to get every piece thoroughly coated with the sauce, sprinkled some chopped cilantro on it, gave it another quick toss, and served it with warm jasmine rice.

Thai Three-Flavored Sauce
(Makes 1 1/2 cups)
Downloadable Version

thai fried fish three flavor sauce
40 g red chilies (about 20 bird’s eye chilies or 3 large red jalapeño peppers), finely chopped
40 g peeled garlic (about 10 large cloves), finely chopped
40 g peeled shallots (2 large), finely chopped
20 g finely chopped cilantro roots or stems (about 1/2 cup, packed)
(The above ingredients can be pulsed to a coarse paste in a food processor.)
150 g palm sugar, chopped (about 1 cup, packed)
4 fluid ounces water (1/2 cup)
70 g brown sugar (1/3 cup, packed)
2.5 fluid ounces fish sauce (1/3 cup)
2.5 fluid ounces tamarind pulp (1/3 cup), prepared exactly as instructed here.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • In a medium saucepan, fry the garlic-shallot-cilantro-chili paste in the vegetable oil over medium-high heat just until fragrant.
  • Add the remaining ingredients to the saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat to maintain a simmer.
  • Reduce the sauce down to about 1 1/2 cups; remove from heat. The sauce will thicken up slightly upon cooling.
  • Store the cooled sauce in a glass jar and refrigerate or freeze.

34 Responses to Thai Three-Flavored Sauce: The Newbie-Friendly Sauce That Can Be Used in Many Dishes

  1. dhanes March 9, 2011 at 3:13 am #

    Yum! (Still waiting patiently for your NPP recipe! 😉 )

  2. Michael March 9, 2011 at 7:21 am #

    อึมมมมมมมม… ปลาทอดสามรศ ดูรูปถ่ายให้นำ้ลายไหลนะ >.<

  3. March 9, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    Stopping by my neighborhood Asian Market right now so I can make this sauce tonight. My mouth is watering. Great post!!!!

  4. Deeba PAB March 10, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Just about managed to make a Sriracha sauce with your suggestion of using red jalapeños. and next will have to make this. Looks so good!

  5. Kelly @ Evil Shenanigans March 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    So excited to see this recipe since Fried Fish with Three Flavor Sauce is among my favorite dishes at our local Thai place! Also, since it is your recipe I KNOW it will work. I can’t wait to make it!

  6. Kristen March 10, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    What a versatile sauce! Thanks for sharing such a great recipe.

  7. Kevin March 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    What a simple and tasty sounding sauce!

  8. ... March 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    This one seems to be perfect, but i tried one like that, with rolls i think in chiang mai, and i think i smell canelle or curry with… it was the basic one but i can’t remember …curry or canelle… you know something about this variation?

  9. Leela March 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    … – A sauce like this that is served with rolls — bread rolls? With canelle or curry (“canelle” as in cannelle or cinnamon)? It doesn’t ring a bell and I have a hard time visualizing it. Could you be more specific?

  10. Jerry March 21, 2011 at 12:58 am #

    Leela, my wife and I fried up some salmon fillets and dressed them with this sauce for dinner. It was one of the most delicious meals in our recent memory. Thank you.

  11. ... March 22, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    ..mmm i ate it with fried roll spring (with a kind of fresh cabbage inside) in chiang mai. i’m pretty sure it was curry and cinnamon mixed with your sauce and you know why? i tried it this saturday and i saved a great jam pot of it… it’s wonderful… thank you so much…

  12. Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 7:37 am #

    My husband made this using your recipe, it’s sooo yummy. Thank you so much for sharing. When we get lazy and crave 3 flavor fish… we just go to the local asian market and buy fried talapia then pour the sauce over it, voila dinner is ready!!

  13. Ben January 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi Leela,

    I am just wondering is this the sauce used at American thai restaurants to flavor a dish usually called “spicy eggplant” or “basil eggplant”? Or is it something similar to nam prik pao?

  14. Admin January 9, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Ben – I doubt it. This sauce is normally not used in stir-fry dishes, and nam prik pao is usually not an ingredient in this particular dish.

    Traditionally, Thai-style eggplant basil stir-fry is made with a garlic-chili-(sometimes shallot) paste similar to what’s used in Pad Kra-pao with a bit of fermented/salted soybean paste added as well as fresh Thai basil at the end. That’s pretty much the core of the dish, although recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant. If you’d like to replicate this dish from your favorite Thai restaurant, I’d start off with this core recipe, then season the dish according to what you remember with fish sauce, sugar, oyster sauce, and perhaps some dark sweet soy. You might not end up with the exact clone, but you should end up with something quite delicious. Then it’s just a matter of fine-tuning from that point on.

  15. More Cowbell March 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    I’ve seen cilantro root as an ingredient in several recipes, and I’m wondering what it tastes like. I’m one of those people for whom cilantro smells like something died, a week ago, in hot weather…

    However, I love ground coriander. So, I’m wondering if the root tastes like the herb or the spice. I’m guessing the herb, but I’m hoping the spice. 😉


  16. Admin March 9, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    More Cowbell – Cilantro roots taste more like cilantro leaves than cilantro (coriander) seeds. Sorry. 🙂

  17. Roz May 18, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    I just had this wonderful sauce on a fried whole fish (snapper) in a local Thai restaurant and it was delicious! I can’t wait to prepare your recipe!

  18. Anonymous July 31, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    Made this fabulous sauce a couple of times when I had friends over for dinner. Used it once over fried whole fish and once to coat batter fried fish pieces. It was a complete hit both times. Thanks Leela!

  19. Ben October 3, 2012 at 1:35 am #

    Thanks for the response Leela,

    Should I use palm sugar or regular sugar when I try to make the eggplant?
    I also noticed that one restaurant I like has very red sauce in their eggplant stir fry (although other restaurants have sauce that is not red, and still delicious), is that from the chili garlic paste? Should I use red birds eyes rather than green?

    Thanks so much, I love your blog.

    • Leela October 3, 2012 at 1:45 am #

      You can use either one and see which gives you the result closest to the version you’re replicating. Most restaurants use regular sugar, for what it’s worth, even though you may find that you like the flavor of palm sugar more.

      The red sauce could come from sambal oelek (it’s used mostly in Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian cooking, but Thai restaurants love it because it’s convenient). Try that and see if it gives you the taste you’re shooting for. In this case, I don’t think the color of the chilies matters much. In fact, when it comes to traditional spicy eggplant stir-fry, what I remember most — the most prominent scent — is the basil, followed by the saltiness of the salted bean paste.

    • Leela October 4, 2012 at 2:37 am #

      I was just thinking more about this — Ben, is it possible they use red curry paste in the sauce? Next time you go to that restaurant, maybe you want to take a picture of the dish and post it here so other readers and I can help you more effectively.

  20. Ben April 23, 2013 at 5:35 am #

    Hi Leela, Thanks for the replies. That restaurant that I went to is not where I live but I found a couple pictures of the dish (or dishes that look like they use the same sauce). From eating it I am not sure of whether or not red curry paste was used, I am familiar with the ingredient but the flavor of it didn’t seem overwhelming, the sauce was a bit sweet and the basil definitely was one of the key flavors.
    Here are some pictures:

    Since I last commented I have tried to make it, using the ingredients you talked about, and it was the closest it has ever tasted to restaurant quality! But still not quite there, my intuition with thai seasonings and sauces is just not very good yet.
    Thanks again!

  21. Cecile December 12, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    Fantastic sauce, thanks for sharing!
    Quick question : how long can you keep it in the fridge?
    A big fan from London 🙂

    • Leela December 12, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

      Cecile – 2-3 weeks, I’d say. 6 months in the freezer.

      • Amy October 23, 2014 at 4:59 am #

        I’ve recently had trouble with tamarind-based sauces growing mold (a peculiar dot-forming slimy cream-colored variety; not a fuzzy white-blue variety) in the refrigerator in under two weeks, though those sauces have also involved tahini. Still, I’m wary of trying to store anything with prepared tamarind in it for very long. Any ideas about whether I’m doing something wrong or whether I’m just weird?

        • Leela October 23, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

          Amy – Did you transfer the sauce to the container and close the lid before the sauce had completely been cooled to room temperature? The moisture from the condensation on the underside of the lid could be the culprit.

          • Amy October 24, 2014 at 2:18 am #

            Hadn’t thought of that, but no: this isn’t a simmered sauce (though I’m now asking myself why not) and never gets hot. But also, wouldn’t the sauce itself have a high enough water activity on its own to grow mold? Aha! Wait: the sauce isn’t simmered. Might that be my issue?

  22. emz September 15, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Hi Leela, I ended up using Tamarind paste (as that is the only they they had in the store) but used the same 1/3 cup of it… result was a dark syrupy mass… and perhaps too sour. wondering if you know how much I SHOULD have used of this tamarind paste as my ending sauce doesn’t look anything close to your photo. 1. my sauce color too dark; 2. too syrupy in constancy… your looks to be more liquid-y?; 3. taste was a bit sour, though could still get a bit of sweet and occasional spiciness.

    • Leela September 15, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

      emz – Were you using the type of tamarind paste/concentrate that is as dark and syrupy as molasses? If so, that’s not going to work. Switch to a Thai brand which should be the color of brown sugar and more pulpy than syrupy. Otherwise, make your own:

      • emz September 16, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

        Hi Leela,

        Yes! That is what I had used. So disappointed, but my own fault for not using the correct ingredient. 🙁 I will try and seek out a Thai version asap so I can finish up the fish we cooked.

        Question for you- I usually chop everything by hand. How does one keep one’s hand/fingers from burning after chopping so many thai bird chilies?

        Thanks so much for getting back to me!

  23. sheng June 21, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

    Love this recipe. I’ve done it with the tilapia you also had on one of your page and it was delicious. I don’t really eat fish, but with this ingredient I will eat it. Also I’ve made this recipe for a family gathering and everyone LOVED it.


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