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.
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.)
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)
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.