This dish consists of six ingredients, stirred together in a small bowl. With simplicity, it embodies and conveys the essence of Thai food for me, in an incomparably immediate, direct way. An everyday relish to be spooned over rice and enjoyed along with 3 or 5 or 7 other assorted dishes as part of a home-cooked Thai meal, it transports me from my North Carolina kitchen to my Thatoom, Surin, kitchen with the very first bite.
You’ll spend more time obtaining the key ingredient, dried shrimp, (goong haeng) than you will putting the dish together. No cooking: just a brief soak for the salty, chewy dried shrimp to dial back the saltiness just a tad, and to soften their texture from leathery to chewy, and then a little pounding to release flavor and improve texture once more, and then it’s a smidgen of squeeze/chop/stir and you’re done. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you could coaresely chopped the shrimp, or spread them out on your cutting board and have at it with the back edge of a cleaver; or corral them in a plastic bag to keep them together and use a rolling pin to break them down a bit.
Look for dried shrimp in Asian markets. In an old-school market with lots of turnover, you may find them out in a barrel or a big bowl, sold in bulk for scooping up and weighing. In the Asian supermarket nearest me, they are sold sealed up in modest-sized packets and kept in the refrigerated section. I transfer them to a jar as soon as I get home, and keep them in the fridge. Available by mail order/online from ImportFood.com and TempleOf Thai.com. Thai cooks use them in old-school tradition paht Thai, along with crispy rods of tofu and pickled radish, tamarind, and garlic chives, and they are a popular ingredient in som tum, green papaya salad.
For more on dried shrimp in the world of food, click here: Dried Shrimp / goong haeng. This story was written for the New York Times back in 2001 by Jack Bishop, who is now Editorial Director of America’s Test Kitchen.
The saying that Thai food is hot/sour/salty/sweet is not an empty or glib statement — it’s a dandy little chunk of truth. (Aside: The massive, award-winning cookbook, Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia, written and photographed in 2000 by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, remains a treasure in every way). This modest accompaniment to a rice meal gives you hot fresh chilies, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce and dried shrimp, and sweet sugar. Boom! All-in-one-Thai cuisine show-and-tell in a bowl, for spooning over rice.