The first time I had this Thai sauce was a couple of years ago at Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market in Los Angeles. I couldn’t decipher exactly what he and his Thai cooks did to pull the inky, spicy, savory, tangy, nutty, pungent sauce together. It was full of textures with flecks of red and nubby bits. We were smitten.
Like a lot of the food on the menu at Night + Market, the dipping sauce broadened our understanding of what Thai food is. The jaew sauce was paired with grilled pork collar – I know it sounds weird but believe me, it was wonderful, uncommon Thai cooking in America. Gutsy sauce with fatty meat. Few things are better.
When I spotted the jaew as an accompaniment to Thai-style pork ribs in Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok cookbook, I had to make it. As I mentioned earlier, I nearly took some shortcuts but then decided to follow his directions. Major payoff. This is one of the most interesting Asian dipping sauces around and I urge you to try it out, explore different renditions.
Ricker’s recipe combines three (3!) sources of umami:
Thai seasoning sauce is basically the Thai version of Maggi Seasoning, which you know I’m a fan of. Golden Mountain is the leading Thai brand. Having the three sauces in there – soy, fish, and seasoning sauces – lends jaew its alluring savory depth.
Then there’s the herbaceousness of lemongrass, tartness of lime juice, sweetness of palm sugar, and smoky heat of toasted chile. For texture, Ricker adds ground toasted rice and chopped cilantro right before serving to allow their flavors to pop.
It was just sensational when we had it with the Thai-style ribs (which I’ll write about next), but got me wondering about other renditions of jaew. I looked through a dozen or so Thai cookbooks on my shelves, some published in Thailand and others in America. Nancie McDermott included a roasted tomato jaew in her 1992 book, Real Thai. It reminded me of a thick, sambal type of relish. Nancie wrote that the sauce went with northeastern-style sun-dried beef (neua kem).
Leela Punyaratabandhu at She Simmers posted a recipe for jaew that included galangal and shallot. I like the raw pungency of those elements, and the simplicity of her overall approach, which you’ll likely find in her upcoming book on Thai home cooking.
What was enlightening was Leela’s mention of how grilled Thai-style chicken (gai yang) is often sold with both the jaew and the sweet chile sauce. I vaguely remember that when I was in Thailand in the early 1990s. Why the heck don’t we get that in the U.S.? It’s likely easier for Thai restaurants to pour the sweet chile sauce from a bottle than to make jaew from scratch.
Well, since you can’t buy this stuff, why not make it yourself? It’s a cinch with a few Thai pantry items in your back pocket. The cool thing about Ricker’s recipe is that the foundational sauce can keep for 2 days in the fridge. You just finish it and serve. It’s practically like pouring it out of the bottle, but you made it yourself. Ricker called for coarsely chopping cilantro stems and leaves but I went for finely chopped stems that it played well with the other ingredients.
Note: I use a reamer to squeeze my citrus because I love the pulp. If you use a press, back off the citrus a bit.
P.S. After reading this post, Ricker informed me via Facebook that jaew is a generic term for a broad range of sauces. At Pok Pok in Portland, they make one for grilled chicken that's heavy on tamarind. He also favors jaew bong with buffalo skin.
Yield: 1/2 cup to serve 4
- 2 large stalks lemongrass
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
- 3/4 teaspoon Thai seasoning sauce or Maggi Seasoning Sauce
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh Meyer lemon juice or unseasoned rice vinegar (to mellow the regular lime juice)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Palm Sugar Simple Syrup
- 2 to 3 teaspoons Toasted Chile Powder
- 1 tablespoon Toasted Sticky Rice Powder
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro stems
- Trim the lemongrass down to the tender center. Cut crosswise into sections, then halve lengthwise. Thinly slice. Pound with a mortar and pestle to a coarse paste, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, seasoning sauce, lime and lemon juices (or vinegar), sugar syrup and chile powder.
- Stir to combine, then set aside for 1 hour to bloom. Or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days, returning to room temperature before finishing. To finish, add the sticky rice powder and cilantro. Stir then serve with the grilled meat of your choice!
Adapted from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker and J J Goode
Related recipes that you could serve jaew with: