Despite the chaos and drama, I like coming home because I get to spend time with my mom in her kitchen, cooking and eating my favorite foods. Many of these I rarely make back in Portland because I don't have anyone to enjoy them with. This Isaan-style dip is one such food. Unlike other popular Thai dipping sauces that are sweet, this one is spicy and savory. It goes wonderfully with steamed, grilled or fried fish and fresh vegetables, such as cabbage, romaine lettuce, Chinese long beans or Asian mustard greens. I like to dip my sticky rice in it too.
There's no real recipe, but this is roughly what you'll need:
galangal, minced (about 1/2 to 1 tbs worth)
1 stalk lemongrass, white part only, finely sliced
4 or 5 cloves garlic, skin on
spicy dried red chilies, to taste (okay to use fresh too)
1 large shallot, sliced
2 to 3 medium-sized tomatoes
5 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
1 tsp kappi shrimp paste* (or more to taste)
fresh lime juice, to taste
fish sauce, to taste
finely sliced green onions, to taste (about 1 or 2 should do it)
chopped cilantro, to taste (about 1/2 bunch)
Toast the galangal, lemongrass, garlic, chilies and shallot in a dry frying pan. The spices will be fragrant and the garlic skins will start to brown. Remove and set aside. In the same pan, toast the tomatoes until their skins start to darken. (The tomatoes may also be put under the broiler for the same result.) Remove and chop.
Now here's the tricky part. You have to grind the toasted herbs into a paste. (Remove the garlic skins first.) The galangal and lemongrass must be completely broken down, otherwise the dip will unpalatable. A mortar and pestle works, but requires a lot of elbow grease. My mom uses her VitaMix, which does an excellent job, as you can see in the picture above. Once you get a nice paste from the herbs, add the chopped tomatoes, shrimp paste, lime juice, fish sauce to taste, green onions and cilantro, to taste.
*My mom also likes to add pla raa, a pickled/fermented fish that is used liberally in Isaan-style food. I won't be offended if you decide not to.