Thai Condiments 101: More Than Just Ketchup
Condiments in Thailand are a far bigger deal than you might expect. This is far more than just asking for a bottle of ketchup or mayo. Locals use condiments to make their dishes exactly how they like them. Read our Thai condiments guide and you’ll be able to too.
Turn up to a restaurant, whether it be a high-class place, a typical tourist eatery or a plastic-chairs-on-the-street kind of joint and you’ll see that the table will already be covered in small pots, dishes and bottles. These are your condiments and the supplements ready to enhance your meal. Each one fulfils a different purpose, increasing sweetness, sourness, saltiness or bitterness. These are the key features of any Thai dish but everyone has a different palate.
The 4 Classic Thai Condiments
The key feature of every Thai table is a set of 4 condiments. Keep thinking about those 4 key flavors. You’ll notice that each pot has a different purpose to fill. For those with a sweet tooth, there’s sugar. At the opposite end of the spectrum is sour, and slices of lime or vinegar complete that slot.
Saltiness is covered through either salt (unsurprisingly) or for a more authentic Thai experience, Nam Pla, otherwise known as fish sauce. Soy sauce works for saltiness with a dash of richness too. Bitterness isn’t often supplemented and instead extra heat can be added through dried chilis. These will be made of fire and should be used sparingly until your palate is accustomed to them. If you’ve ever wondered about what kind of chilis these are, check out our guide to Thai chili peppers!
Your best bet is to experiment with a little of each and see how you enjoy them. Thai’s like their food at a considerably higher heat level than Westerners so be wary of the chili. A squeeze of lime or a dash of soy can really take your dish to another level.
Sauce is a big deal in Thailand. When you pick up anything from a street vendor, especially the likes of satay, you’ll be offered sauce. This can be a variety of different styles. Some are sticky and sweet, others are sticky and sour. Most of them are sticky! The two most famous Thai sauces are either the peanut Satay sauce (made with peanuts and typical Thai spices) or Sweet Chili sauce.
Sweet chili has really taken the world by storm over the last few years. In Thailand it’s known as Nam Jim Kai. It’s syrupy, sweet with a slight chili kick. People eat it with pretty much anything and everything! If you’re after the even more authentic version, with a heavier kick, try Nam Prik Pao. This is not just used as a dip but also as a base for many Thai dishes. Think of it like a curry paste for Thai dishes. It contains, chilis (obviously), shallots, palm sugar, Nam Pla, garlic and tamarind. Remember those 4 distinct flavors? It covers them all. If you fall in love with it then recipes are easily available online or you can buy a jar in almost any supermarket.
Watch Your M̶o̶u̶t̶h̶ Spice!
Always taste a bit of the food first. Every chef cooks in a different way. The last thing you want to do is smother an already hot dish in chilis and make it inedible. Soon enough you’ll get used to what you like and will be adding condiments like a local.