Imagine a dish so brilliantly orchestrated you'd assume it came from a top-drawer chef. Wouldn't you listen with respect when he told you it was a shrimp-infused dip with wild-harvested Asian vegetables? And wouldn't you expect to pay an inflated price?
Instead, that very dip is humble enough to serve as poverty food in Krabi in Southern Thailand. Called nam prik hyum, it's made with shrimp paste, dried shrimp and fresh shrimp. The taste is intense, spicy and refreshingly bright with lime juice. Instead of chips, it's served with vegetables.
Here, you'll find nam prik hyum at Lum-Ka-Naad, a Northridge restaurant that specializes in Northern and Southern Thai cuisine.
It's made by Ooi Sonbalee, the wife of restaurant owner Alex Sonbalee. Ooi is from Krabi, where even poor villagers can afford the basic ingredients. Chilis, limes and other fresh seasonings would be home-grown, as would the vegetables eaten with the dip. In a modest home, nam prik hyum might be the entire meal. In a more prosperous family, it would accompany other dishes — and smoked fish might be added to the shrimp.
Lum-Ka-Naad presents the dip in a bowl surrounded by sliced cucumber, fried eggplant, small round Thai eggplants, steamed bok choy, cabbage and a single whole Indian mackerel. In Thailand, this small fish might have to be shared by an entire family.
A better known Thai dip is nam prik kapi (kapi means shrimp paste), which originated in central Thailand. This dip is sweeter than nam prik hyum and contains garlic rather than the shallots used in the South. There's another difference: Nam prik kapi is pounded in a mortar, whereas nam prik hyum is crushed by hand, which is the way it's prepared at Lum-Ka-Naad.
In the South outside Krabi, nam prik hyum is known as nam prik jone. In the old days, Alex Sonbalee says, bandits (jone) escaped to the jungle after robbing a village. Having no mortar and pestle, they had to mix nam prik with their hands.
You won't find a jungle at Lum-Ka-Naad — instead, you'll encounter one of the longest Thai menus around. Nam prik hyum is No. 121 out of 178 dishes. Nam prik kapi isn't there at all, but the kitchen will whip it up if you want to compare the two dips.
Read more from Barbara Hansen at TableConversation.com, EatMx.com, @foodandwinegal and Facebook. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.