YOU be the chefPosted by Pailin Chongchitnant on Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
Tags for this Article: condiment, fish sauce, thai
I’ve had a few conversations regarding some customers wanting to customize their food to such an extent that it drives chefs up the wall and begs the question…who’s the chef here? In another part of the world, namely Thailand, there are some circumstances where this customization would actually be encouraged.
If you’ve been to Thailand you may have seen something like the above picture on the tables of some restaurants. This is what I like to call The Standard Thai Condiment Quartet. For some reason, these condiments are generally only used for noodle dishes—noodle soups, pan-fried noodles, whatever kind of noodles. The four members include:
1. Fish sauce & Chili (salty)
2. Vinegar & Chili (sour)
3. Chili powder (spicy)
4. White sugar (sweet)
Each of the members represents a flavour that can be added to customize your dish: salty, sour, spicy and sweet. Some variations of each condiment exist (sometimes the chili is blended with the vinegar, other times left in whole slices), but the four flavours are constant.
This gives diners the complete freedom to customize the flavour balance of their meal to exactly how they like it. In some ways this makes a lot of sense because the truth is, everybody has a different palate. So everyone gets a chance to be a chef at the table. Takes a bit of pressure off the actual chef, too! Some places even make the noodles a bit on the mild and neutral side to allow for these condiments.
Some noodle restaurants sometimes boast the fact that their food is so perfectly seasoned that it doesn’t need any seasoning adjustment. I’ve been to one noodle place in Bangkok where every table has a sign posted above the condiment set which reads: “Please taste before adjusting.” This warning was actually quite smart because most people have a standard way they add seasoning to a certain dish, and they will automatically add their usual condiments without tasting the original flavour first. For example, I always add fish sauce and sugar to my noodle soups, while my mom always adds the vinegar. So I never like her finished product and she never likes mine, but hey, that’s even better!
The fish sauce & chili is often available on its own when asked at any restaurant (even in Canada!) because we use it to season pretty much anything (the same way one would use salt and pepper). But the whole set is generally available only if you’re having noodles. As to why specifically noodles, I’m not sure. I suppose you could add it to anything you want, really!