When it comes to combining sweet and salty, the Thai people are second to none. We’re just really good at it. Watermelon and dried fish? Check. Sweet custard with fried shallots? Check. Garlicky, shrimpy, spicy fruit salad? Yup. Mangoes — apples in this case — with a dipping sauce containing shrimp paste, fish sauce, and dried shrimp? A national favorite.
This sticky fruit dip called nam-pla wan (น้ำปลาหวาน) is most often served with tart green mangoes (sliced lengthwise and thinly to make it easy for you to scoop up the chunky sauce with them). In fact, the name of this sauce is hardly ever invoked in isolation from the word mango, ma-muang (มะม่วง).
However, I’ve found that this dipping sauce also goes very well with other fruits as long as they’re tart (and preferably firm in texture). This sweet and salty (and somewhat hot) dip begs for a companion that is sour. Together they form the famous sour-salty-sweet-hot flavor combination which you love so much about Thai cuisine.
The slightly tart and tannic santol works very well with this dip. Under-ripe pineapple is also a good candidate. My favorite? Tart, crisp apples. Granny Smith is the best.
It used to be that I regarded tart apples as a substitute for green mangoes which can be hard to find in my neck of the woods, but I have now considered tart apples as right up there with the more traditional green mangoes. In fact — and don’t tell the mangoes — I much prefer tart apples these days.
Apples, dried shrimp, shrimp paste, chilies, and fish sauce can co-exist harmoniously. Who knew?
The best nam-pla wan I have ever had in my life is sold at Je Paeo (เจ๊แป๊ว), a fruit-dip stand in Chinatown, Bangkok. They set up their stand around 7:00 p.m. with a humongous glass jar of nam-pla wan. By 9:00 p.m., the glass jar is almost empty.
But good nam-pla wan can be found anywhere in Bangkok. At Or Tor Kor Market, there’s a vendor that sets out a bowl of nam-pla wan and green mango slices for people to sample while telling them about all the celebrities who drive across town to the market just to buy her famous dipping sauce. In the fruit section of the freeloaders’ paradise, also known as the supermarket inside Siam Paragon, they also often set out a bowl of nam-pla wan and green mango slices for you, especially during the mango season.
Though Nam-pla Wan and mangoes is such a common dish in Thailand, its popularity has not crossed over to North America or Europe. Most likely, it’s not on your favorite Thai restaurant’s menu. And the reasons are pretty obvious. So, if you’d like to find out what it tastes like, you’re going to have to make it yourself.
Fortunately, it’s very easy to make. Oh, and please don’t be scared by the shrimpy and fishy elements; they become subtle and mellow.
Nam-Pla Wan – Thai Sweet and Salty Fruit Dipping Sauce (น้ำปลาหวาน)
Makes about 2 cups
330g of palm sugar (or, as I prefer 165g of palm sugar plus 165g of either brown sugar or unrefined cane sugar)
1/3 cup (80 mL) fish sauce
8g shrimp paste
2 large (46g) shallots, peeled and cut into thin slices lengthwise
66g dried shrimp, divided
Small dried red chilies (I use arbol), to taste
- Crush the palm sugar (and cane sugar, if applicable) with a large cleaver or a granite pestle into small chunks. This allows it to melt more quickly and easily.
- Place the sugar(s) in a medium pot along with the shrimp paste and fish sauce; set the pot over low heat.
- Keep stirring until everything has melted and come to a gentle boil.
- Remove the pot from heat and let the syrup cool to about 100°-115°F (43°-47°C); it will also thicken up slightly upon cooling. You should end up with about 1 1/2 cups (360 mL) of sticky sauce that has the consistency of maple syrup.
- While waiting for the syrup to cool, divide the dried shrimp into two equal portions. Pulverize one portion in a food processor or coffee grinder until you get fluffy, tiny flakes; keep the other portion whole.
- Stir the dried shrimp and the shallots into the syrup. The residual heat of the syrup will wilt the shallots slightly. And while the moisture from the shallots will thin out the sauce somewhat, the dried shrimp flakes give it body.
- Crush up with your fingers the amount of dried chilies commensurate with your heat tolerance and stir that in.
- The sauce is ready to be served with your favorite tart fruits. Provided that you keep the sauce in an air-tight container and don’t dip (or, worse, double-dip) the fruit right into the container, the sauce should keep, refrigerated, for a month.
-  Literally, “sweet fish sauce.”