Goong Pad Nam Prik Pao (Thai Stir-Fried Shrimp With Chile Jam)

A savory-sweet Thai stir-fry made with shrimp, oyster mushrooms, long beans, and nam prik pao.

Shrimp Stir-Fry put on a yellow plate
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Goong pad nam prik pao is a stir-fry of shrimp, oyster mushrooms, and long beans glazed with a nam prik pao-infused sauce. If you’ve got a jar of savory-sweet nam prik pao (Thai chile jam) kicking around your refrigerator, you’re in luck, since the dish comes together in under thirty minutes. If you don’t have nam prik pao in your refrigerator, well, you should; it's a versatile roasted chile paste that can be used as a condiment, much as you would any other chile paste, and it's also used in quick, delicious stir-fries like this one.

Although nam prik pao is already sour, sweet, and salty and packs a punch, it requires a bit more seasoning when using it as a sauce. For this dish, I use Thai oyster sauce and Thai light soy sauce to amplify nam prik pao's savory and salty notes, coupled with a touch of tamarind paste and sugar to round things out. I also give the nam prik pao some assistance from fresh ingredients. Since it already contains dried shrimp and roasted shallots, garlic, and chiles, I add their fresh counterparts to intensify the dish’s overall flavor.

This recipe was designed and tested with homemade nam prik pao and Thai seasoning sauces; using other kinds of oyster sauce or light soy sauce will yield a slightly different flavor profile, as will using store-bought nam prik pao. Since every nam prik pao is seasoned differently—I recommend the Mae Pranom brand, which is used widely throughout Thailand—you will have to make slight adjustments to the quantities you see in this recipe.

When cooking the stir-fry, I make sure to add each component separately to the wok, in order to sear them properly, cook them through thoroughly, and mitigate steaming. To start, I sear shrimp in hot oil until they’re nearly done, then set them aside. Into the oil left behind in the wok I toss chewy oyster mushrooms with thinly sliced onion and a roughly-pounded paste of garlic and fresh Thai chiles. After removing the seasoned mushroom mixture from the wok, I pour in the sauce and let it simmer until it’s slightly thickened, then add the shrimp, mushrooms, and long beans, and cook until the sauce is absorbed and the beans are vibrant in color and still crunchy. Finishing with scallions and Thai basil adds a slightly floral and pungent note. 

Goong pad nam prik pao should be served with white rice, ideally as part of a larger meal, with something fresh like yam khai do or a som tam Thai and a curry, like a green curry.

For the Stir-Fry Sauce: In a small bowl, stir together nam prik pao, oyster sauce, light soy sauce, white sugar, water, and salt until well combined. Set aside.

Stir-fry sauce in a small metal bowl
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For the Stir-Fry: In a small bowl, combine shrimp with a pinch of salt and mix to evenly coat. Set aside.

Shrimp in a square red bowl being sprinkled with mixture
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Combine garlic, chiles, and a pinch of salt in a granite mortar and pestle and pound until a rough paste forms, about 20 seconds. Set aside.

Overhead view of two image collage of garlic and peppers in a mortar before and after being ground
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Heat a wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Add oil and swirl to coat. Add shrimp and spread in an even layer. Cook undisturbed until rosy orange in color on one side, about 30 seconds. Using a wok spatula, flip shrimp and continue to cook until rosy orange in color on second side and shrimp are nearly cooked through, about 20 seconds longer.  Transfer shrimp to a medium bowl, leaving residual oil in the wok.

Two image collage of shrimp being cooked in a wok
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Return wok to high heat until smoking, add mushrooms, and toss to evenly coat with oil. Use wok spatula to spread mushrooms into an even layer and cook without moving them until mushrooms are lightly browned on bottom side, about 45 seconds. Add the garlic-chile mixture and stir to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add onion, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until onion is slightly softened, about 1 minute. Immediately transfer mushroom mixture to the bowl with the shrimp. 

Four image collage of mushrooms, chile paste, and bean sprouts being cooking a wok
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Add stir-fry sauce to wok and cook until sauce is slightly reduced and thickened, about 45 seconds. Add long beans along with the shrimp and mushroom mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce has been absorbed, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat, add scallions and sweet basil, and stir until well-combined and basil is slightly wilted. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine rice.

Four image collage of stir-fry sauce added to wok and then shrimp and vegetable mixture being added to the wok
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Granite mortar and pestle, carbon steel wok, wok spatula.

Notes

You can adjust the spiciness of this dish to your taste by reducing or increasing the amount of fresh Thai chiles in the recipe.

Since this stir fry pushes the limit of what I recommend cooking in a wok at once, especially on a home stove top, if you'd like to double it, I suggest cooking the components in multiple batches.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Stored in an airtight container, the stir-fry sauce will keep for about 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Makheua Yao Pad Tao Jiao (Stir-Fried Eggplant With Minced Pork)

A classic Thai-Chinese dish flavored with fermented soybean paste, garlic, fresh chiles, and Thai basil.

Overhead view of eggplant stir-fry plated on a blue plate on a blue background
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

One of my favorite ways to eat eggplant is in makheua yao pad tao jiao, a classic Thai-Chinese dish of stir-fried eggplant and minced pork. Flavored with tao jiao (fermented yellow bean sauce), garlic, fresh chiles, and licorice-tasting Thai sweet basil, the straightforward yet aromatic dish is often found at the curry and rice stalls known as khao gaeng, but it's also commonly made at home.

Wok cooking in Thailand is the result of Chinese influence and it's become prevalent in modern-day cuisine, although it's commonly associated with street food and restaurants, particularly the kind of cooking that requires intense heat to produce the smoky flavor known as wok hei. Although home cooks can achieve wok hei in their kitchens, I believe it’s best to leave that to high-powered restaurant wok burners. Instead, I think home cooks should focus on other stir-frying fundamentals, like cooking the ingredients for a dish in smaller batches then combining them at the end, which helps to prevent steaming your ingredients to mush. 

For the eggplant, I coat slices in a mixture of cornstarch, white vinegar, water, and salt, which functions as a protective layer that prevents enzymatic browning, a series of chemical reactions that occurs in some foods when their cut surfaces are exposed to air. I then flash fry the eggplant in hot oil to soften it while preserving its vibrant purple hue. Once the eggplant is cooked, I brown the ground pork and toss it with garlic and chiles, then remove the mixture and set it aside to make the sauce—since a standard home stovetop burner can't bring sauces to a rapid boil like a wok burner would, removing the pork helps prevent it from overcooing. To complete the dish, I bring the umami-packed sauce made with tao jiao, oyster sauce, and soy sauce, along with water and sugar to balance out the flavor, to a rapid simmer, add the eggplant and pork back in, and cook everything together until the sauce is absorbed. Finished with Thai basil for an herbal bite, this dish pairs well with fragrant jasmine rice. 

If you’re interested in doubling this recipe, I suggest cooking multiple batches separately. Don’t do it all in one go―this stir-fry pushes the limit of what I recommend cooking in a wok at once, especially on a home stovetop. 

For the Stir-Fry Sauce: In a small bowl, stir together fermented soy bean paste, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and water until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

A metal bowl filled with a mixed, brown sauce
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

For the Eggplant:  Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. Set a strainer in a large heatproof mixing bowl, and set bowl on a heatproof surface. In a wok, heat oil over high heat to 400°F (205°C). In a separate large mixing bowl, combine eggplant, cornstarch, vinegar, water, and salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands until well-coated. Carefully add half of the eggplant to the wok and fry, stirring constantly, until just cooked through, about 30 seconds. Using a spider skimmer, transfer eggplant to prepared baking sheet. Return oil to 400°F (205°C), and repeat frying process with remaining eggplant. Once all of the eggplant has been fried, carefully pour all of the hot frying oil through strainer into large mixing bowl; set aside to cool and discard or reserve for another use. Wipe out wok and return to stovetop.

Four Image Collage: Eggplant mixture in a bow unmixed, eggplant coated in mixture in a bowl, eggplant being scooped out of oil in a wok with a spider, overhead view of eggplant frying in a wok.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

For the Stir-Fry: Return wok to high heat until smoking. Add 2 tablespoons (30ml) of the reserved eggplant frying oil and swirl the wok to evenly coat the bottom and sides with oil. Add pork, and spread into an even layer using the bottom of the wok spatula. Cook, undisturbed, until pork is lightly browned on bottom side, about 20 seconds. Flip pork and break it up into small pieces with the spatula using a chopping motion while stirring constantly. Add the garlic and chile and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer the pork mixture to a small bowl and set aside.

Four Photo Collage: pork added to oil in a wok, a metal spatula flipping pork, a side view of stirring chiles, overhead view of cooked pork and chiles in a wok
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Return wok to high heat and add the stir-fry sauce. Bring to a rapid simmer, then add pork mixture and eggplant. Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce is fully absorbed by eggplant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, add basil, and stir until well-combined and basil is slightly wilted. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine rice.

Four Image Collage: Eggplant added to wok, pork and eggplant being stirred together in the wok, basil added to wok, overhead view of completed stir-fry in wok.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Carbon steel wok, wok spatula.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Stored in an airtight container, the sauce will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Khua Kling Gai

A fiery, aromatic stir-fry that’s quick and easy to make.

A plate of Khua Kling Gai topped with hair-fine slivers of makrut lime leaf and showing the relatively dry texture of the stir-fry.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Khua kling gai is a simple stir-fry of minced chicken and a Southern Thai-style curry paste. While much of the flavor in the dish is provided by the aromatic and spicy curry paste, sliced lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, and fresh red chiles amplify its herbal notes, provide textural complexity, and a bit of freshness, while fish sauce and sugar are used to season and balance out the flavor profile.

Although khua kling is typically stir-fried in a wok, it isn't prepared in the same way as something like a traditional Cantonese stir-fry. Often, when people think of stir-frying, they imagine restaurant cooks vigorously tossing ingredients in a wok set over a roaring jet engine of a burner. Mimicking that kind of setup at home is difficult, and practiced home cooks know that if you don't have an similar burner at home, you can achieve similar results if you cook your ingredients in a wok on your stove in smaller batches and combine them at the end of cooking, which ensures that the ingredients will be seared but crisp instead of steamed and mushy.

However, you don't always have to cook stir-fries over extreme high heat, and you don't always have to cook the various ingredients in a stir-fry separately to produce great results. In fact, stir-fries don't have to have wok hei at all. In Siamese cooking, before the advent of jet engine-like gas burners, cooks primarily used clay burners known as tao, which would be filled with charcoal or wood fires. These clay grills are still found today in Thailand, and they're not always used for high-heat cooking.

Khua kling offers a good example of a stir-fry cooked over moderate heat. "Khua" in Thai means "to dry roast," and in the context of this dish, it refers to the fact that the goal is to end up with a dish that is relatively dry and not saucy at all. The cooking process, which involves drying out the ingredients while constantly scraping and tossing to prevent scorching, essentially binds the protein used in the dish with the curry paste. The curry paste and chicken, in this case, are cooked together and stirred constantly with a wok spatula, which is used to scrape up and move the contents of the wok even as it chops through them. Any sticky bits that form on the bottom of the pan are scraped up with the help of small additions of water.

Whenever I used minced chicken in a dish, I prefer to use dark meat (from the thighs and legs), as it holds up better when cooked for longer periods of time, and I find it's essential to mince it by hand. You can, of course, buy ground chicken at the store, or grind it yourself at home, or pulse chicken in a food processor to chop it, but it's quite easy to mince chicken by hand and the texture is far superior to any of these other options.

Khua Kling Gai with a bowl of rice and a Thai omelette on separate plates.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

To mince chicken by hand, cut the chicken thighs into long strips, then line the strips up and cut them crosswise into cubes. Then run your knife over the cubed meat in a chopping motion for a few minutes. You do not need to mince the chicken super fine for this recipe; it's in fact preferable to have variation in the size of the pieces of minced chicken, some larger, some smaller, as that variety will produce a better textured final dish. Of course, as with cutting up any kind of meat, it can be very helpful to partially freeze the meat first, so it's easier to handle.

Now, while there's a common misconception that all Thai food is necessarily spicy, and that all Thai people eat spicy food. While that isn't true at all, this dish will do nothing to address that misconception, as it must be spicy. I am warning you now: Before you eat this dish, you have to prepare yourself to enter the heightened euphoric state induced by very spicy food. I also want to not that when you prepare this dish, the air in your home will also become very spicy, so I recommend turning on your hood fan or otherwise setting up some proper ventilation; at the very least, open several windows.

Because this dish is quite spicy, I recommend serving it as part of a larger meal. The spice levels will work well with other, relatively neutral dishes, like a panang curry or a Thai-style omelet. This dish also pairs great with crunchy vegetables like long beans or cucumbers.

Using a sharp knife, cut chicken thighs into 1/2-inch-thick slices, then cut slices crosswise to form 1/2-inch cubes. Spread cubed chicken in an even layer on cutting board. Chop chicken, working the knife across the cutting board in a continuous motion, occasionally lifting and folding the meat over on the board to expose larger pieces of meat, until coarsely minced, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

A four step collage of chicken being minced on a cutting board.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Heat wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Add oil, swirl to coat, and add curry paste and cook, stirring constantly with a wok spatula, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

A metal spatula pushing curry around in oil in a wok
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Add chicken and continue to cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the wok constantly to prevent chicken from sticking and curry paste from scorching, until chicken is cooked through and the moisture it has released has fully evaporated (the sound will change from a simmer to a sizzle as the chicken begins to fry in oil once the water has evaporated), about 4 minutes.

A metal spatula moving chicken around in a wok.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Add fish sauce and sugar, and continue to cook, stirring and scraping frequently, until fully absorbed, about 30 seconds. Add lemongrass, 3/4 of the makrut lime leaves, and Thai chiles (if using). Stir and toss until thoroughly combined, then remove from heat. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine rice and a Thai omelet.

4 image collage of chicken, curry, lemongrass, and peppers being cooked in a wok with a metal spatula
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Carbon steel wok, wok spatula

Notes

Makrut lime leaves can be found at Southeast Asian and South Asian markets. If you’re lucky you will find them fresh, but it is more common to find them frozen (note that they are often sold under a different name that we avoid using, as it is a derogatory term in some contexts).

Make-Ahead and Storage

Khua kling gai is best enjoyed immediately, but leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Som Tam Thai (Central Thai-Style Green Papaya Salad)

The classic, crunchy, sour-salty-sweet green papaya salad

Overhead of a serving bowl of som tam Thai.
Vicky Wasik

Walk down any bustling street in Thailand and you will hear the rhythmic beat of wooden pestles striking clay mortars as vendors prepare iterations of som tam—pounded salads that are paired with a sour dressing. The most well-known entry in this category is easily som tam Thai, the shredded green papaya salad found in central Thailand that has become synonymous with the term “som tam.” The salad combines crunchy strips of unripe green papaya with fresh chiles, pungent garlic, savory dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, long beans, and tomatoes, all of which are tossed with a salty-sour-sweet dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. It’s everything you could want in a salad—refreshing, light, and quick to prepare.

Tam-style pounded salads are integral to the cuisines of Laos and Isan, and they have become a fast-food, on-the-go item that can now be found all over Thailand and pretty much any place that serves Lao or Thai dishes outside of Southeast Asia. While som tam salads follow the same basic preparation blueprint (more on that later), ingredients and flavor profiles vary from region to region. In Laos and Isan, som tam tends to favor savory and sour notes rather than sweetness, with ingredients like pla ra—a fermented fish sauce known as padaek in Lao—salted crabs, and pickled plums. This recipe is for central Thai-style som tam, which is evenly balanced between sour and sweet, thanks to a generous amount of palm sugar in the dressing. Sweetness and saltiness can vary a good deal between styles, but sour, or “som,” is a requirement.

A wooden mortar and pestle
Vicky Wasik

The other requirement for tam-style salads is a mortar and pestle–specifically a wooden or clay mortar with a wooden pestle. The goal for pounding ingredients for salads is to lightly bruise and break them down to the point that they release their juices but hold onto their crunchy texture. The kind of heavy granite mortar and pestle I use for making a prik gaeng (curry paste) is great for pulverizing fibrous aromatics and dried spices into a fine paste, but it’s not well-suited for pounding tasks that require a lighter touch. The increased volume capacity of a large clay or wooden mortar is ideal for salad-mixing, but despite being larger they are much lighter to maneuver.

As for the salad itself, the star of the show is the green papaya. Green papaya is actually fairly easy to source in the US, and can be found at most Asian grocery stores, especially Southeast Asian markets. While they are unripe papayas, I strongly advise against trying to pick out a green-skinned papaya at a supermarket like Whole Foods, no matter how firm and unripe they feel. Despite their appearance, they are much further along in the ripening process than a true green papaya, and you will find that they are orange and sweet once you cut into them. Like green tomatoes, green papayas are their own thing, harvested for a specific culinary purpose, and shouldn’t be confused with a fruit that has just been picked before being fully ripe in order to survive shipping. When shopping for green papaya, look for fruit that are firm and feel heavy for their size. If the fruit is squishy, put it down and keep searching.

Shredding green papaya with a knife by hand.
Vicky Wasik

The traditional way to prepare a green papaya for som tam is to peel it and cut it by hand into strips with a sharp knife. I do this by holding the papaya in my non-dominant hand while making a series of parallel cuts running lengthwise on the papaya, and then shaving down across the length of the papaya to create shreds. This method produces perfectly imperfect shreds with interesting texture, a mix of larger, crunchier pieces, and thinner, more delicate ones. The downside to this method is that it’s more time-consuming and it can be a little nerve-wracking for anyone who doesn’t trust themselves completely with a sharp knife.

Luckily, there’s an easy alternative to hand-cut green papaya: you can use a specialized green papaya peeler, like this affordable one from Kiwi. The Kiwi peeler works much in the same way as a Western julienne peeler; it has a classic y-peeler profile, with a ridged tooth blade that produces even strands of papaya when run down the length of the peeled fruit. Restaurants often favor this tool for making som tam because it gives you consistent results, fast. I find that peeler-shredded papaya doesn’t retain its crunch quite as well as knife-cut, and I prefer the varied texture produced with a knife. Whichever method you go with, avoid standard julienne peelers, which create shreds that are too thin, which in turn will result in a soggy som tam.

Comaprison of green papaya shredded with a Kiwi peeler, and green papaya shredded with a knife.
On the left: peeler-shredded green papaya. On the right: knife-cut green papaya.Vicky Wasik

Once the papaya prep is taken care of, the rest of the salad is a breeze to make. I start by  pounding fresh chiles, garlic, and dried shrimp together until they are just slightly broken down. I then add roasted peanuts and pound them slightly before adding softened palm sugar and dissolving it with the pestle by working it around the sides of the mortar. Next, I add long beans and  cherry tomatoes, crushing them slightly just to bruise them and release some juices before adding in lime juice and fish sauce. It’s critical to taste for seasoning at this point as once the green papaya goes in, it’s more difficult to adjust.

The dressing should be sour, sweet, and savory all at once, with background heat from the chiles. When the dressing tastes right, I add in the green papaya and work it into the mix by stirring with a spoon in one hand while lightly pounding with the pestle with the other hand. The goal here is to have the green papaya absorb the dressing, while still keeping its crunch, so it’s critical not to pound too aggressively, and to also be ready to serve the salad immediately. The longer the papaya marinates with the dressing, the softer it will become. However, this shouldn’t be an issue; once som tam Thai hits the table, it doesn’t tend to sit for long.

In a clay or wooden mortar, combine garlic and chiles and pound with wooden pestle until slightly slightly broken down, making sure to keep the pestle as close to the chiles as possible to avoid splattering chile juices over yourself, about 30 seconds. Add dried shrimp and 1 tablespoon (15g) peanuts and continue to pound until slightly broken down, taking care not to over-pound and form a peanut paste, about 30 seconds.

Pounding chiles, garlic, dried shrimp, and peanuts in a wooden mortar and pestle.
Vicky Wasik

Add palm sugar and continue to pound lightly while also working the pestle in a circular motion while applying gentle pressure to help dissolve the palm sugar, about 30 seconds. Add long beans and pound until slightly broken down, 15 to 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and pound gently just until the tomatoes release their juices, about 15 seconds.

Adding palm sugar, long beans, and cherry tomatoes to mortar and pounding until slightly broken down.
Vicky Wasik

Add lime juice and fish sauce and stir with pestle using a circular motion until well combined and palm sugar is fully dissolved, about 15 seconds. Add green papaya. Holding a large spoon in your non-dominant hand while holding the pestle in your dominant hand, pound down the sides of the mortar (not the center) while simultaneously using the spoon to move the ingredients back and forth in the mortar until ingredients are well combined and green papaya has begun to absorb the dressing, about 30 seconds. Take care not to over-pound the green papaya or it will lose its crisp texture.

Adding fish sauce, lime juice, and shredded green papaya, and mixing in mortar until evenly dressed.
Vicky Wasik

Add remaining 1 tablespoon (15g) peanuts and pound gently just until they are slightly broken down. Transfer salad to a serving plate, and serve immediately with sticky rice.

Dressed som tam salad in wooden mortar.
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Clay or wooden mortar and wooden pestle.

Notes

You can adjust the spiciness of this salad to suit your taste by reducing or increasing the amount of fresh Thai chiles in the recipe.

Dried shrimp can be found in Asian markets and also online.

Palm sugar can be found in Southeast Asian markets, as well as some nationwide supermarkets like HMart, and also online. At room temperature, palm sugar is a solid mass and needs to be softened so that it can be incorporated into the dressing. You can soften palm sugar by microwaving at full power in a microwave-safe bowl for approximately 15 seconds. If you can’t find palm sugar, for this recipe you can substitute with an equal amount of light brown sugar.

Green papaya is an unripe papaya that is pale white/green when peeled. Unlike a ripe orange papaya, green papaya is not sweet, and has a very crisp texture. You can find detailed instructions on how to shred green papaya here.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Green papaya can be shredded in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 24 hours. The finished salad is best enjoyed immediately, as the green papaya will soften considerably the longer it sits in the dressing.

Yam Woon Sen (Thai Glass Noodle Salad With Shrimp)

This spicy-sour noodle salad comes together in minutes.

A serving bowl of yam woon sen with shrimp.
Vicky Wasik

In Thai cuisine, noodles are generally enjoyed as a single-serving, stand-alone meal. Favorites like pad see ew and pad thai usually aren’t shared or included as part of a larger spread. As Pailin Chongchitnant wrote in her article describing how to construct a balanced Thai meal, noodles are the “sandwiches of Thai cuisine.” One notable exception to this rule is yam woon sen, a glass noodle salad that features shrimp, ground pork, fresh herbs, roasted peanuts, and a punchy dressing. It’s a dish that works equally well as a solo act for a light lunch, or as part of a full feast ensemble.

Yam (pronounced “yahm”) salads, such as yam khai dao, are characterized by a bright, balanced dressing that contains the “primary” flavors commonly associated with Thai cooking—spicy, sour, salty, and sweet—in the form of fresh chiles, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. For yam woon sen, I like to add garlic and coriander roots to the dressing, which I pound into a paste with fresh chiles in a mortar and pestle, before adding the sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. The aromatics add a refreshing sharp bite, as well as some body, which will help the dressing coat the slippery glass noodles in the salad.

In Thailand, glass noodles, known as woon sen, are made from mung bean starch and are typically sold in single-serving bundles. Depending on the brand, glass noodles can be labeled as cellophane noodles, mung bean threads, mung bean noodles, bean vermicelli, bean threads, green bean threads, or broad bean threads. For this recipe, look for a Thai brand with mung bean starch as the only listed ingredient. Preparing the noodles is a breeze: you briefly rehydrate them in cool water until they become pliable, and then boil them until they swell and turn translucent.

Poaching the shrimp and pork ensures that the proteins are gently cooked, keeping them both tender and giving them a very clean flavor profile. I then like to cook the noodles in the same cooking water as the shrimp and ground pork, to streamline the process and maximize flavor. Once everything is cooked, I toss the three together with the prepared dressing, which allows the warm noodles to soak it up while also tempering its raw allium bite. Sliced tomato, Chinese celery, and shallots add a fresh vegetal note, and roasted peanuts lend crunch and fattiness to the salad. Serve it as a weeknight meal or as part of a more ambitious Thai spread. Either way, yam woon sen is always a crowd-pleaser.

For the Dressing: In a granite mortar and pestle, combine cilantro roots, chiles, garlic, and a pinch of salt, and pound into a fine paste, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and work pestle in a circular motion against mortar until sugar is fully dissolved, about 1 minute. Add lime juice and fish sauce and stir to thoroughly combine. Transfer dressing to a large bowl and set aside.

Making dressing for yam woon sen in a granite mortar and pestle
Vicky Wasik

For the Salad: Place glass noodles in a medium bowl and cover with room temperature water. Allow noodles to hydrate until pliable, about 10 minutes. Drain, and set aside.

Hydrating glass noodles in a bowl of water.
Vicky Wasik

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring 1 cup (240ml) lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add shrimp, stir to ensure they are fully submerged, and then remove from heat. Allow shrimp to poach, undisturbed, until they change color and are just cooked through, about 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, immediately transfer shrimp to bowl with dressing, leaving poaching water in saucepan.

Poaching shrimp and adding to bowl with dressing.
Vicky Wasik

Return water to a boil over high heat and add pork. Cook, using a spoon to stir and break up any large clumps of meat, until cooked through, about 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, immediately transfer to bowl with dressing.

Simmering ground pork and adding to bowl with dressing and shrimp.
Vicky Wasik

Return water to a boil over high heat, add glass noodles and more water as needed until noodles are submerged. Cook, stirring frequently until noodles swell and become translucent, about 2 minutes. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain noodles, shaking strainer to get rid of excess moisture, and transfer to bowl with dressing.

Cooking glass noodles and adding to bowl with dressing, shrimp, and pork.
Vicky Wasik

Using a large spoon or tongs, toss noodles, shrimp, and pork with dressing until evenly coated. Add sliced chiles, tomato, shallot, and half of the peanuts and continue to toss until well combined and most of the dressing has been absorbed by the noodles. Add cilantro and Chinese celery and toss to combine. Transfer to a large serving platter or divide between individual serving plates, sprinkle with remaining peanuts, and serve.

Mixing noodles with dressing and other ingredients for yam woon sen.
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Granite mortar and pestle, fine-mesh strainer.

Notes

The roots of fresh coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) provide a slight herbal note to curry pastes, but are unfortunately hard to find in the US, as they are often cut off from the stems before going to market (though local farmers markets in the summer and fall often have coriander with the roots still attached). Coriander roots can also be found at Southeast Asian markets. If you cannot find coriander roots, substitute with stems from 10 sprigs of fresh cilantro, cut into 1-inch pieces, or omit entirely.

You can adjust the spiciness of this salad to suit your taste by reducing or increasing the amount of fresh Thai chiles in the dressing and in the salad.

Glass noodles can be found in Southeast Asian markets and online. They are often labeled as cellophane noodles, mung bean threads, mung bean noodles, bean vermicelli, bean threads, green bean thread, or broad bean threads. For this recipe, seek out a Thai brand that lists mung bean starch as the only ingredient, with noodles portioned into 1.4-ounce (40g) bundles. They will keep indefinitely in your pantry.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The glass noodles can be hydrated up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container. The finished salad is best enjoyed immediately.

Laab Moo Isan (Thai Isan-Style Minced Pork Salad)

A bright, spicy, and refreshing northeastern Thai meat salad.

Serving bowl of pork laab with a bowl of sticky rice in the background
Vicky Wasik

Salads are a key component to a balanced Thai meal, and if you love a protein-heavy salad, you'll love laab. Like tam (pounded salads) or yam (mixed salads), laab is a distinct salad category that's defined by an action—namely, chopping or mincing. As such, laab can best be described as a chopped or minced meat salad.

In Laos and Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand that borders Laos and Cambodia, laab is characterized by a savory-spicy-sour dressing, made with fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles, copious amounts of fresh herbs, mint in particular, and khao khua, or toasted-rice powder, which contributes a unique texture and nutty aroma. Laab moo Isan, or Isan-style pork laab, is a great introduction to this regional style of salad as it can be easily made with ground pork, requires minimal cooking, and comes together in minutes.

Before we get into the details of this recipe, however, I want to take a second to discuss the other common transliterations for laab. Yes, laab and larb are the same thing. The same goes for laap and larp. That said, laab and laap provide much better approximations of the correct pronunciation for the word in Thai, as the "ar" sound in English resembles the Thai pronunciation the least.

With that out of the way, we can turn to the recipe. Purists may argue that in order to meet the criteria of laab, the meat for the salad must be hand-minced. For some proteins, such as chicken, I agree, since I find store-bought ground chicken to be pasty and lean. But I take a more lenient approach with pork. Coarsely ground pork shoulder makes great laab and will save you a lot of time and energy.

For this style of laab, you want to quickly simmer the ground meat with a couple tablespoons of water until it’s just cooked through. If you're familiar with Maillard browning and are thinking there's no way it'll happen in these conditions, you're right. The goal here is pretty much the exact opposite—you don't want any browning on the meat as you want its flavors to be subtle.

Once the pork is cooked through, take the saucepan off the heat, and stir in fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles. Unlike yam salads, sugar doesn’t play a big role in the dressing for laab, and is often omitted entirely, but for this version, you have the option of adding a small pinch at this stage if you want a hint of sweetness to balance the heat and acidity of the dressing. Give the pork a few minutes to absorb the dressing and cool down a little before tossing in a handful each of shallots, culantro, cilantro, and scallions. Mint is the most vital fresh herb for laab, and it’s best to hold off on adding it until right before serving, as it will bruise, blacken, and turn bitter if left to marinate in the acidic dressing with the warm pork.

Wait until the last moment to add the khao khua as well. The toasted-rice powder helps to thicken the dressing and lends a subtle, pleasant crunch to the salad, but if you stir it in too early it will really soak up the dressing and become gloopy. So before you finish up the laab, make sure your dining companions are ready to eat, and you have all the other components of the meal ready to go. Sticky rice is a required accompaniment for Isan-style laab, and an assortment of vegetables, or pak laab, is typically offered alongside as well. The vegetables are meant to be enjoyed in between bites of salad, and they can consist of a selection as simple as strips of cut cabbage, long beans, and sliced cucumbers.

If you're planning on serving laab as a light lunch, get the sticky rice and vegetables prepared, or if you're planning on serving a multi-dish Thai meal, then get everything else on the table, then put together the laab at the last minute, adding the mint and khao khua just before placing it on the table.

In a 3-quart saucier, bring 2 tablespoons (30ml) water to a boil over high heat. Add pork and cook, stirring vigorously with a large spoon to break up any large clumps, until meat turns gray and is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow pork to cool for 30 seconds.

Cooking ground pork in a saucepan with a little bit of water until pork is just cooked through.
Vicky Wasik

Add fish sauce, lime juice, sugar (if using), and 1 1/2 teaspoons (7g) ground chile. Stir to combine and then allow to cool for 5 minutes.

Adding fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles to cooked ground pork in saucepan.
Vicky Wasik

Add shallot, culantro (if using), cilantro, and scallions, and stir to combine. At this point, make sure you have everything ready to go that you plan to serve with the laab, such as sticky rice. Once you are ready to serve, add khao khua and stir until thoroughly combined and most of the liquid in the saucepan has been absorbed, 10 to 15 seconds. Add mint and stir gently until just combined. Taste and adjust seasoning with more fish sauce, ground chiles, and/or lime juice as needed. The salad should be assertive—acidic, salty, and spicy—but balanced. Serve immediately with cooked sticky rice.

Stirring herbs and khao khua into pork laab.
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

3-quart saucier

Notes

If your butcher counter takes requests, coarsely ground pork shoulder (sometimes referred to as a “butcher’s grind”) is ideal for laab as it most closely approximates the texture of hand-minced meat used in traditional laab. Regular ground pork will work for this recipe as well, but the texture will be more pebbly. Pork shoulder has great flavor and its high fat content helps balance the punch of the dressing.

Culantro, also known as sawtooth coriander, is a common addition to laab moo Isan. It adds a peppery and slightly bitter herbal note to the dish. Culantro can be found in Southeast Asian, Central American, and Caribbean markets. If you cannot find culantro, double the amount of cilantro in the recipe.

Make-Ahead and Storage

This dish is best enjoyed immediately.

Tam Khao Pod Kai Kem (Thai Corn Salad With Salted Duck Egg)

A bright, savory, sour, and sweet salad with coconut-infused corn, crunchy long beans, and crumbled salted duck egg.

Overhead of a serving plate of corn salad with a bowl of sticky rice on the side.
Vicky Wasik

When fresh corn is in season, you don't need to do much to let its flavor shine. I love chomping down on an ear of grilled or steamed corn on the cob, but when I’m feeling a bit more creative, I like to make tam khao pod kai kem, a bright and refreshing Thai salad that pairs the sweet pop of corn with creamy coconut milk and a savory, sour, and sweet dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. Crisp long beans and juicy cherry tomatoes add texture, Thai chiles lend subtle heat, and dried shrimp and salted duck egg reinforce the salad's savory side. This is the perfect side dish to celebrate the last of summer produce. 

Tam-style salads are pounded salads found in Lao and in Thai cuisines. Som tam, which combines the word for sour (som) and the term for pounding in a mortar (tam), has become synonymous with green papaya salad, which is easily the most well-known tam-style salad outside of the region. But there are countless variations on the theme that use ingredients beyond green papaya, such as cucumber or, in this case, corn. While the components of tam-style salads can vary, the process for making them doesn’t change much.

Like a prik gaeng (curry paste), a som tam comes together by pounding ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Components are added in stages, starting with fibrous aromatics, and gradually working toward more delicate ingredients, pounding and mixing with the pestle along the way. Unlike curry pastes, the goal here isn't to pulverize the ingredients into a fine paste, but rather to bruise and break them down just until they release their aromas. It’s a much quicker and gentler process, and it typically requires a different style of mortar and pestle: wooden or clay mortars are used for tam-style salads, rather than the heavy granite ones used for curry pastes.

For tam khao pod kai kem, I start by simmering whole ears of fresh corn in coconut milk until they are just tender. The corn picks up a subtle layer of fatty richness from the coconut, while also imparting its own flavor to the coconut milk, which I drizzle over the salad right before serving. Once cooked and cooled slightly, I cut the corn off the cobs in planks rather than individual kernels—to give the salad more interesting textural contrast—and set them aside.

With the corn squared away, it’s time to turn to the mortar and pestle. First, I pound garlic, chiles, dried shrimp, and palm sugar for a few seconds until just broken down slightly. I then add long beans and a handful of cherry tomatoes to the mix, and pound them just until the tomatoes split and release some of their juices. I stir in fish sauce and lime juice to balance out the sweetness of the palm sugar, which I fully dissolve in the liquids by gently working the pestle around the mortar in a circular motion. Finally, I mix the reserved corn and a crumbled salted duck egg into the salad with a spoon, so as not to break up the clusters of corn. The salted duck egg lends briny richness to the dish, with a texture and flavor that is somewhat reminiscent of Italian ricotta salata, and it serves as a welcome foil to the sweet corn. The resulting salad bursts with pops of crunch from the coconut-infused corn and bruised long beans, the flavors held together by the the nicely balanced sweet, savory, sour, and salty dressing. It's a salad you'll want to make over and over again.

In a medium Dutch oven, combine coconut milk, salt and granulated sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to help dissolve salt and sugar. Add corn, and use tongs to turn ears until evenly coated on all sides with coconut milk. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook, checking and turning occasionally with tongs, until corn is tender, about 6 minutes. Transfer corn to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly; remove coconut milk mixture from heat and reserve.

Simmering ears of corn in coconut milk in a Dutch oven.
Vicky Wasik

Once corn is cool enough to handle, working with one ear at a time, use a sharp knife to cut kernels off of cob in large planks, rotating ear 90 degrees onto freshly cut side between cuts. Do your best to keep corn pieces as large as possible and not separate into individual kernels. Repeat with remaining ears of corn; discard cobs, and set corn aside.

Cutting corn kernels off of cob, keeping them in long planks.
Vicky Wasik

Using a sharp knife, halve salted duck egg lengthwise, cutting through the shell. Scoop egg out of the shell with a spoon; discard shell. Using clean hands, crumble egg into small pieces, and set aside.

Halving salted duck egg and scooping egg out of the shell.
Vicky Wasik

In a clay or wooden mortar and pestle, combine garlic and chiles and pound to a very coarse paste, about 30 seconds. Add palm sugar and dried shrimp and pound until slightly broken down, about 20 seconds. Add tomatoes and long beans, and pound lightly until beans are lightly crushed and tomatoes have released some of their juices but are still mostly intact, about 15 seconds. Take care not to over-pound; you want the ingredients to maintain their integrity and texture. Add fish sauce and lime juice, and using the pestle, stir in a circular motion, applying gentle pressure to the mortar to fully dissolve the palm sugar, about 15 seconds.

Lightly pounding ingredients for the salad in a wooden mortar and pestle, starting with garlic and chiles, followed by dried shrimp and palm sugar, long beans and cherry tomatoes, and fish sauce and lime juice.
Vicky Wasik

Add reserved corn and salted duck egg. Using a large spoon, mix gently to combine, while doing your best to keep corn in large clusters (some of the corn will break down into individual kernels, and that’s fine). Transfer to a serving plate and drizzle with 1/4 cup (60ml) of reserved coconut milk mixture. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine or sticky rice.

Adding salted duck egg and corn to mortar, and mixing until evenly coated with dressing.
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Dutch oven, clay or wooden mortar and pestle

Notes

When purchasing coconut milk, look for versions like this one from Aroy-D that have "100% coconut milk" as the only listed ingredient, rather than those made with coconut extract and water.

You can adjust the spiciness of this salad to suit your taste by reducing or increasing the amount of fresh Thai chiles in the recipe.

Dried shrimp can be found in Asian markets and also online.

Palm sugar can be found in Southeast Asian markets, as well as some nationwide supermarkets like HMart, and also online. At room temperature, palm sugar is a solid mass and needs to be softened so that it can be incorporated into the dressing. You can soften palm sugar in the following ways by microwave at full power in a microwave-safe bowl for approximately 15 seconds. If you can't find palm sugar, you can substitute with 1 teaspoon (5g) granulated sugar.

Cooked salted duck eggs are used in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines, and can be found In Asian markets or online. In the States, they are usually sold fully cooked, in-shell, and individually vacuum sealed. They provide a savory, salty punch to this dish. If you can’t find salted duck eggs, increase amount of fish sauce in the dressing to 3 tablespoons (45ml).

Make-Ahead and Storage

This dish is best enjoyed immediately.

Kanom Jeen Nam Ya (Thai Fish Curry with Rice Noodles)

A saucy Thai fish curry, perfect for dressing noodles.

Overhead of a serving plate of noodles dressed with fish curry, with assorted vegetable garnishes and a soft-cooked egg on the side.
Vicky Wasik

If you walk around for a little bit in any of the open-air markets in Thailand, you'll start to notice that shophouses and street vendors all have very specific setups that serve as clues for what they serve to their customers. Finding kanom jeen vendors is easy: their beautiful coils of rice noodles are all laid out next to large pots of curries and piles of vegetables, ready to be tossed together at a moment's notice. Ordering can be a little overwhelming, as you get to pick from both the curry selection to eat with your noodles and what seems like an endless variety of add-ons—vegetables like cabbage, bean sprouts, long beans, and banana blossoms; fruit like green mango and pineapple; and various pickled or coconut-braised vegetables. 

One of the most popular curries served with kanom jeen is nam ya style curry, a coconut-based fish curry that's made by cooking aromatic ingredients along with fish in coconut milk and then blending them, which produces a thick, noodle-coating sauce. There are two main versions of nam ya curry, one from the central plains region of Thailand and another from the southern part of the country. The central plains version uses moderately spicy dried spur chile (prik cheefa), freshwater fish like snakehead fish (pla chaawn), a salted fish (pla goo lao), and includes copious amounts of grachai—a rhizome that’s also known as fingerroot, Chinese keys, and wild ginger—to temper the curry's fishy flavor (in Thai they say, "dap khao pla," which translates loosely to, "kill the fishy odor"). The southern version is more fiery and has a more vibrant yellow hue due to the inclusion of smaller, spicier chiles, black pepper, and fresh turmeric, and uses saltwater fish like mackerel (pla thuu) or barracuda (pla saak) to thicken the curry. The southern version also omits grachai.

The recipe below is based on the central plains version of nam ya, and so grachai is its dominant flavor. However, it isn't uncommon to see a blending of the two versions of the curry in modern-day Thai cooking, and while I try to cook Thai food with respect for its history and traditions, I've borrowed a little from the southern version, most notably by using a saltwater fish (Spanish mackerel) and omitting salted fish, because of its limited availability. That being said, I believe there's no substitute for grachai, which has a peppery, slightly medicinal aroma. And while there's nothing quite like fresh grachai, frozen or brined grachai is widely available at Southeast Asian groceries and online. If you end up using brined grachai, make sure to soak it in fresh water for at least an hour, changing the water every 10 minutes, to remove some of the brininess.

Unlike other curries you may be familiar with, nam ya doesn't start with creating a paste from fresh ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Instead, the ingredients are roughly chopped up and then simmered with fresh fish in coconut milk that has been thinned out with water to approximate the consistency of hang gati, the “tail,” or second or third pressing of coconut milk, which is much lighter and subtly flavored compared to the rich and thick hua gati, or “head” of coconut milk. After simmering, the fish and the aromatic ingredients are removed and pounded separately in a mortar and pestle, so that the fish takes on a crumbly texture and the aromatics are reduced to a paste, after which they're combined with the simmering liquid, more coconut milk, and fish sauce to produce the final curry. I've streamlined and modernized the process a little by using a food processor to pulse the fish to a crumbly texture and to blend the aromatics into their simmering liquid.

Overhead of serving dishes of noodles, vegetables, and fish curry
Vicky Wasik

Nam ya isn't nam ya unless it's paired with rice noodles. Traditionally, kanom jeen noodles are made from rice that's fermented before being extruded into a spaghetti-like noodle, but due to the amount of labor involved and the noodles' short shelf life, it's more common to find kanom jeen noodles that are freshly made from unfermented rice. The best substitute for these noodles is fine vermicelli noodles. After boiling them, rinse them in cold water to remove excess starch and then wrap them into individual coils. They can be left at room temperature up to 3 hours before serving.

You can't have kanom jeen without an assortment of vegetables, herbs, and other accompaniments like soft-boiled eggs, all of which provide pops of freshness and textural contrast to the saucy curry and chewy noodles. Banana blossoms, pickled mustard greens, pennywort, Thai sweet basil, bean sprouts, cabbage, long beans, mung bean sprouts, and cucumbers are all traditional, but feel free to use whatever is in season and available to you.

This is a great warm weather dish, and one that can be made in advance, as the curry is eaten at room temperature and poured over room temperature noodles. Pass the vegetables and garnishes at the table, giving people the option to mix them in with the noodles and curry or eat the curry over the noodles, taking bites of vegetables in between.

For the Curry: In a 3-quart saucepan, whisk together 2 cups (475ml) coconut milk and 4 cups (1L) water. Add lemongrass, grachai, shallots, garlic, galangal, both kinds of dried chiles, shrimp paste, salt, and mackerel. Stir to combine and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook at a boil, stirring occasionally, until fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer fish to a plate and set aside to cool.

Simmering aromatics and fish in coconut milk
Vicky Wasik

Return saucepan to medium-high heat, and continue to cook until liquid is reduced to approximately 3 cups (710ml), 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer contents of saucepan to a blender and blend on high speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes; wipe out saucepan and return to stovetop. Set aside blended curry.

Blending aromatics until smooth.
Vicky Wasik

Using clean hands, pick fish meat from bones and transfer to a mortar and pestle or food processor bowl; discard bones and skin. Pound or pulse until fish is the texture of cooked ground meat, about 1 minute.

Pulsing picked cooked fish in food processor.
Vicky Wasik

Return fish and blended curry to saucepan along with remaining 1 cup (240ml) coconut milk, fish sauce, and 1/2 cup (120ml) water. Stir to combine and bring to a boil over over medium-high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until curry thickens to a saucy consistency, about 20 minutes.

Simmering blended curry with fish until thickened to a saucy consistency
Vicky Wasik

For Serving: Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, about 7 minutes (cooking time varies for vermicelli, so start checking for doneness after 3 minutes). Drain and rinse under cold water. Transfer noodles to a large serving platter or individual plates. Spoon curry over top or pass at the table along with vegetables, eggs, and sweet basil, allowing guests to garnish plates as they please. Serve.

Overhead of a serving platter of cooked rice noodles, a platter of sliced vegetables, and a bowl of fish curry.
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

3-quart saucepan, blender, food processor or granite mortar and pestle

Notes

When purchasing coconut milk, look for versions like the one from Aroy-D that have "100% coconut milk" as the only listed ingredient, rather than those made with coconut extract and water.

Grachai, sometimes spelled krachai, is known by many names in English, including wild ginger, fingerroot, and Chinese keys. Like ginger and galangal, grachai is a rhizome, with a slightly bitter and medicinal aroma. Fresh grachai is nearly impossible to find in the US, but frozen or brined grachai can be found at Southeast Asian markets.

Fresh makrut limes can be hard to find in the US. You can order them online, though they are a seasonal product and may not always be available (note that they are often sold under a different name that we avoid using, as it is a derogatory term in some contexts); you may also be able to find them in the freezer section at Southeast Asian markets. Makrut lime zest freezes well. If you cannot find makrut lime, you are better off omitting it, as the more common Persian lime and other citrus are not good substitutes.

Dried spur chiles are a type of Thai chile known as prik cheefa haeng; they have a fruity, mild flavor, and are prized for the color they impart to curry pastes. They can be hard to come by in the US, but are sometimes available online. Alternatively, you can substitute puya or guajillo chiles, which are available at Central American markets.

Freshwater fish such as tilapia or catfish can be substituted for mackerel. If using boneless fillets, adjust cooking time as needed in step 1, taking into account that fish will cook more quickly.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Curry can be made in advance, and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. Bring to room temperature, or gently warm on stovetop before serving.

Gaeng Om Gai (Isan-Style Herbal Curry with Chicken and Dill)

A refreshing Isan-style chicken curry loaded with crisp vegetables and dill.

Gaeng Om Gai (Isan-Style Herbal Curry with Chicken and Dill)
Vicky Wasik

The cuisine of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand that borders Laos and Cambodia, has become more popular outside of Thailand in recent years, thanks to dishes like the papaya salads known as som tum and fiery, minced-meat salads known as laab (or "larb," as you often see it written on menus and online).

These are iconic dishes and are well worth celebrating, but there are also plenty of other lesser-known but equally outstanding regional specialties that deserve attention, like this bright curry loaded with fresh herbs and vegetables, which I like to think of as the perfect chicken soup.

Unlike rich gaeng khiao waan gai or gaeng massaman neua, both of which are made with coconut milk, gaeng om gai is a much lighter, water-based curry that highlights the refreshing qualities of its components. The tender-crisp bite of cabbage, yu choy, and Thai apple eggplants; the tender pieces of chicken; the savory funk of fish sauce and pla ra, a thick, murky, fish sauce made from fermented freshwater fish; the cooling aroma and flavor of fresh dill; and the aromatic punch and chile heat of a coarsely pounded curry paste.

If you're not familiar with Thai cuisine's diversity, gaeng om may seem a little odd. Like most Isan dishes, it doesn’t offer you the familiar comforts of palm sugar or coconut milk, and in fact it's more representative of a traditional gaeng (curry) from centuries in the past. Its sauce is is a combination of three key elements: a coarsely textured aromatic paste, water or stock, and pla ra.

While nam pla, the fish sauce that has become a staple in kitchens all over the world, is made from anchovies and salt, pla ra is made from freshwater fish, khao khua (roasted-rice powder), and salt. It has a more intense funkiness than nam pla, and a subtle sweetness; even in Thailand, pla ra is considered an acquired taste.

The coarsely pounded paste is another element of the recipe that may require you to throw away preconceived notions of how Thai curries are made. Unlike the finely textured paste used in dishes like panang curry, gaeng om uses a coarsely pounded paste, similar to something you might make for a stir fry: chiles, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and makrut lime leaves are crushed in a mortar and pestle, but just until they've release their natural oils and fragrance.

Once the paste is prepared, you fry it with the chicken pieces until it smells amazing, and then you loosen it with chicken stock and bring the sauce to a simmer. You then add vegetables in stages, to cook them through without sacrificing their crisp bite, and a healthy pinch of khao khua helps to thicken the broth while also adding some nutty, toasty notes. Finally, off-heat, you add some more makrut lime leaves, green onions, and dill; adding these elements right at the end and reducing the temperature maintains the freshness of the herbs and allows their flavors to infuse the sauce slowly, similar to making a tea.

a plate of vegetables to use in Gaeng Om Gai (Isan-Style Herbal Curry with Chicken and Dill)
Vicky Wasik

If you want to experiment by adding other ingredients to this curry, here are a few suggestions that I think are appropriate for its flavor profile. You can switch the protein up by using pork or fish; you can use other vegetables, like pumpkin, long beans, or mushrooms. You can also use other herbs: culantro (sawtooth coriander) and sweet (a.k.a. Thai) basil work very well in the curry, as does Thai lemon basil (bai maenglak), if you can find it. (While Thai lemon basil is traditionally included in this dish, it's seasonal and hard to come by in the US, so I chose to omit it from the ingredient list.)

Once prepared, this curry pairs perfectly with Thai sticky rice.

For the Curry Paste: Combine salt and lemongrass in a granite mortar and pestle and pound until a coarse paste forms, about 2 minutes. Pounding thoroughly between each addition to break down and incorporate ingredients into a coarse paste (3 to 4 minutes of pounding per addition), add in the following order: shallots and garlic; Thai chiles and makrut lime leaves. It should take about 10 minutes total to pound ingredients into a coarse paste, with visible pieces of chile and makrut lime leaf.

pounded paste for Gaeng Om Gai (Isan-Style Herbal Curry with Chicken and Dill)
Vicky Wasik

For the Curry: Season chicken with salt; set aside. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add curry paste and, using a rubber spatula, stir vigorously to combine, scraping sides of the saucepan to fully incorporate paste. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add chicken, stir to coat with paste, and cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is pale white and opaque on all sides, about 2 minutes.

collage: paste added to saucepan; chicken added; chicken cooked slightly
Vicky Wasik

Add chicken stock and galangal and bring to a rapid simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and tender, about 10 minutes.

chicken stock added and brought to a simmer
Vicky Wasik

Add eggplant, pla ra (if using), and fish sauce. Continue to cook, adjusting heat as needed to maintain a rapid simmer, until eggplant is just cooked through but still have some bite to them, about 3 minutes. Add cabbage and yu choy, stir to combine, and cook until vegetables are barely tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, add khao kua, dill, makrut lime leaves, and scallions. Stir until incorporated and herbs are slightly wilted.

collage: vegetables added in stages to the pot
Vicky Wasik

Transfer curry to a large serving bowl or divide between individual bowls. Serve immediately with cooked sticky rice or jasmine rice.

a close up of Gaeng Om Gai (Isan-Style Herbal Curry with Chicken and Dill) in a bowl
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Granite mortar and pestle, 3-quart saucepan

Notes

Pla ra is a fermented fish sauce made by fermenting freshwater fish with salt and rice bran or khao kua (toasted-rice powder). It can be found in Southeast Asian markets or online. If you cannot source pla ra, you can substitute with 3 tablespoons (45ml) fish sauce, bringing the total amount of fish sauce used in the recipe to 1/4 cup (60ml).

Thai apple eggplant, often labeled simply as “Thai eggplant,” can be found in Southeast Asian and Chinese markets, as well as online. While they differ greatly in flavor and texture, Japanese or globe eggplant can be used as a substitute in this recipe (use an equal amount by weight); cut eggplant into 2-inch pieces and proceed with the recipe as written. Once cut open, the flesh of Thai apple eggplants will quickly oxidize, so it’s a good idea to place them in water until you’re ready to add them to the curry.

Makrut lime leaves can be found at Southeast Asian and South Asian markets. If you’re lucky you will find them fresh, but it is more common to find them frozen (note that they are often sold under a different name that we avoid using, as it is a derogatory term in some contexts).

Make-Ahead and Storage

The curry paste can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container, with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the paste to prevent it from drying out, for up to 1 week. The finished curry is best enjoyed immediately, as the vegetables will lose their crispness over time.