Updated: Sep 6, 2021
The date for my practice exam is fast approaching and I continue to practice the recipes I’ve developed for my final tasting exam. One of the dishes I’ve been working on is a take on a Thai dish called Nam prik kung siap haeng (photo below). It falls in the dip category of Thai cuisine, but it’s not actually dip-able. It’s a dish that Thais eat like a dip, which means it’s accompanied by lots of raw and cooked vegetables and sometimes crunchy fried things. This particular dish consists of a thick syrupy sweet, sour and salty sauce, glazed over crunchy deep fried garlic, shallots, chilies and large dried shrimp. It’s spicy, fishy and intense, and it’s fantastic with the crunchy vegetables it's served beside. The photo below shows the dip done two ways. One "wet" version with shrimp paste and fish sauce, and one "dry" version with only fish sauce as the salting agent.
I chose to riff on this dish for my final exam menu because I really like the way this dish does sweet and sour. Most sweet and sour recipes I see rely on white sugar and white vinegar to get that tangy balance, but this dish uses tamarind paste and palm sugar. The tamarind is less sharp than vinegar and the palm sugar is more interesting and aromatic and a bit less processed than white sugar, so it just kind of speaks to me. It’s a much more complex sweet and sour in that the method calls to caramelize the palm sugar with fish sauce, so there are umami and burnt sugar notes that aren’t present in the typical cherry red sweet and sour sauce of panda express. :-)
I wanted to take this approach of sweet and sour and put my spin on it. I wanted to make it a little less fishy, and diversify the texture a bit. So I made a few tweaks and tested it out on a group of Thai and Western friends. I'm happy to report that it was very well received!
My changes were pretty simple. I’d take out the dried shrimp and replace them with fresh prawn and I’d remove the shrimp paste. Then I’d change the dish to a lettuce cup structure (but using Thai white pepper leaves), which felt necessary because of the fresh prawn and also added reference another Thai dish called Miang Kham, which is a really fun dish of lots of aromatic crunchy things wrapped up in white pepper leaves. Next I added some threads of kaffir lime leaves and fresh coriander to elevate the aroma. Crunchy cucumber and Thai eggplants are added to add more crunch and mellow out the spice. Depending on the type and quantity of chili you use, you can make this as spicy as you like. My first version (last photo) was REALLY spicy, which my Thai friends really appreciated.
This dish is a very fun finger food dish that is perfect for a light meal eaten al fresco with a loved one. Recipe below!
Sweet and Sour Prawn Lettuce Cups Recipe
Serves 2 as an entrée, 4 as a side
½ pound fresh prawn (shelled and heads removed)
5-10 dried bird’s eye chili (to taste based on your spice level)
8 large garlic cloves
8 pearl onions (sub one shallot)
cooking oil for deep frying (reserve some to stir fry)
1/3 cup tamarind paste (also called tamarind concentrate)
2 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1/4 cup palm sugar (sub. coconut sugar or agave syrup)
Juice of 1 lime
2 kaffir lime leaves (sub. lime zest), sliced to threads
1 head lettuce (best if you can get little gems or butter lettuce. OR if you're in Thailand, white pepper leaves!)
1-2 persin cucumbers
½ bunch basil or cilantro
any other fresh veggies you enjoy (thin slices of carrot, sweet peppers, snap peas would all work!)
Slice the garlic into as thinly and evenly as possible and reserve. Slice the pearl onions or shallot thinly and evenly and reserve separately from the garlic.
Get ready to fry. Have a plate ready with a few paper towels on top to drain off the excess oil. You could also put some paper towels on top of a wire rack you use to cook cookies. Have a metal strainer and heat proof bowl ready to strain the fried food from the oil.
Get a small sized shallow pan and add 1 inch of oil. Drop in your garlic and then turn the heat to medium, swish them around gently in the oil to make sure they're not clumping together. Don’t preheat the pan – you want the garlic to slowly increase in temp. Stir this around gently and constantly, it will start to bubble and sizzle. When most of the water has been released and evaporated in the fry, the bubbles will decrease is size and frequency, and you should see some blond golden color on your garlic. Pull it from the oil with a slotted spoon, or pour it through a metal strainer to remove the garlic from the oil. Pull the garlic at yellow, as the color will deepen outside of the oil as the residual heat continues to cook them. This ensure you wont burn the garlic.
Add your oil back to the pan, and do the same with the shallot. Shallot is less easy to burn compared to garlic, but you will still pull it before it reaches your desired color as it will also continue to color after removed from the oil.
Use the same oil, and drop in your chilis. Turn the heat on low this time. The chili will crisp up pretty quickly, and will burn even faster than the garlic. So toss it around the hot oil for a few seconds, and then remove them. If you give it a test poke and it doesn’t shatter, you can put them back in the oil to go a little longer. You want the color of the chili to change only slightly, it goes from red to burnt pretty quickly.
Keep your fried bits in a dry place, maybe draining on a paper towel.
Next cook your sauce. Add the palm, fish sauce and tamarind paste (or juice) to a sauce pan and turn the heat to medium. Keep stirring this until it has reduced and caramelized to a thick syrup. Test the thickness using the spoon test. Dip the back of a spoon into the hot syrup and drag your finger across it. If the line from your finger stays, you’ve got a thick syrup and you can remove it from the heat. If the line disappears, you need to reduce further. Transfer the syrup to a bowl.
Lastly, cut your prawns to your desired shape. I like slicing them in half horizontally so that they turn into little curls, but you could also leave them whole or cut them into small chunks. Take a tablespoon or two of your garlic, shallot, chili oil and sauté your prawns in the oil until they are cooked, this should only take a few minutes.
Wash and dry your lettuce leaves. Pile them high on a serving bowl. Cut your cucumber into small triangles. Pick the woody stems from your basil. You could also add shredded carrots, spring onions, cilantro, and sweet peppers if you wanted more vegetables. Make an inviting and fresh platter of crunchy produce.
Toss the tamarind syrup over the prawns. Add in the fried garlic and onion/shallot and thinly slice kaffir lime leaves. Crunch up the chilies to your taste, the more chilies you crunch up the spicier it will be, and add them to the tamarind prawn. Squeeze over some lime juice to taste and toss to mix.
To eat, use your lettuce leaves like a tortilla to hold the sweet and sour prawn mixture, and top with fresh herbs and veggies. The photos shows white pepper leaves instead of lettuce, as that’s a easily available edible leaf here in Thailand. You can you any edible leaf you like! You could try shiso, if you have access to that!
Below is my first version of this dish.