I can perform a magic trick. I can tell you right now, sitting at my desk in North Carolina, USA, what is on the table in any noodle shop or cafe, anywhere in the Kingdom of Thailand. You will be impressed with my magic powers only if you have not yet had the pleasure and gift of traveling around Thailand, eating everyday Thai food. Thai people love to play with their food, to season it, adjust it, tweak it to provide exactly the flavor they crave at the moment they eat each bite. This could mean ramping up the chili heat, stirring in a sweet note, pinching the taste with a tangy bite, or honing its salty edge. The cook makes it expertly, and then each eater reaches for the kreuang brung rote, a quartet (or thereabouts) of condiments and ingredients for fine-tuning the dish. Hence the presence on each table, or at least very handy, of kreuang brung rote.
I love the word kreuang, which means ‘engine’ or ‘machine’, as Thai people apply it to food. Here it combines with brung and rote to denote seasonings, flavor-adjusters, brung meaning to adjust or calibrate, and rote meaning flavor or taste. The seasonings typically get corralled into a caddy or container, which could be a set of glass jars on their own little square tray, a handled contraption, or in old-school noodle cafes, a long rectangular box made of stainless steel, aluminum or tin, with lids which flap shut. Diminutive spoons or ladles await you in each jar or compartment, for delivering the exact amount you want. Then you use your big spoon and back-up fork to toss and mix it into your serving and then dig in.
The standard items include fish sauce with minced fresh chilies, granulated white sugar, dried ground chilies, and this simple vinegar sauce with a hint of fish sauce and a healthy supply of fresh hot chilies. It’s prik meaning fresh hot chili pepper, dong meaning pickled or preserved or made tangy/salty/good; nahm meaning liquid or juice, and som meaning sour. nahm som together means vinegar, plain white vinegar being the standard Thai tangy-source. Ground peanuts are common as well, especially if paht Thai is available for order. This simple sauce, prik dong nahm som, often contains bigger chilies than I used here, sliced jalapenos or another large hot chili. These deliver heat but not such fiery heat as you get from the tiny Thai chilies. I’ve used two kinds of fresh hot green chilies since I could find them. The smaller ones are prik ki noo or prik ki nok, and the larger ones are prik chee fah. Both are most likely to be labled simply “Thai chilies” in here in the West, and may be a mix of green and red, or green, red, and orange, the warmer colors usually denoting ripening rather than a different type of chili.
This little sauce is standard with two particular dishes: kao tome, Thai rice porridge, and kwaytiow paht si-yu, soy sauce noodles with beef and greens. It’s so simple to make that you could stir it together when you need it. But Thai cafes and noodle shops have it on hand all the time, and that certainly increases the chances I will put it to use, and the effect on the chilies is to pickle them, a lovely extra note of flavor if you’re also providing fish sauce with freshly chopped hot green chilies, which I hope you are doing!
Your assignment now is to go to google “Thai condiment caddy” and click on “Images”. I just had the best time perusing the round-up of seasoning-delivery devices and equipment, along with food photos of the dishes to be seasoned, or seasoning sauces and dips. If you would like to have your very own Thai-style condiment caddy, look in the utensils and equipment section of your favorite Asian market, or check out these from two excellent online Thai food-cooking-and-equipment resources
And next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, ask for fish sauce or vinegar and see if you don’t find yourself treated to the pleasure of a condiment caddy for your very own table.