Fresh veggies and aromatic ingredients _ from shrimp paste to chilli and lime _ ruled the day. With creative recipes and the art of decorating a dish, it's a challenge to sample an array of mouthwatering nam prik kapi, Thai shrimp paste sauce, from all 12 teams of people who competed in a recent nam prik kapi making contest.
The heat of the day didn't bother the entrants. They were busy preparing ingredients and cleaning up equipment to ensure they were ready for the competition. When the contest kicked off, they picked up garlic, chilli and shrimp paste, and made savoury chilli sauce in the hope of being the best of the contest.
"Nam prik kapi is one of my favourite Thai dishes. And we all love this simple dish in our home," said Cheerayut Kanokpodjananont, one of the very few male entrants.
"It's wonderful for breakfast, lunch or even dinner. Nothing's better than delicate nam prik kapi, that perfectly created taste of sweet, sour and salty. When eaten with fried small mackerel and fresh vegetables and warm steamed rice, it's heavenly."
Cheerayut, who usually cooks for his family, said one reason nam prik kapi is popular is because it is easy to make.
"It's not about cooking. So, I don't need to worry if it's undercooked or overcooked. With some amazing fresh ingredients, a dish of nam prik kapi can go from ordinary to extraordinary," said Cheerayut.
Enjoying a samrap meal that comes with different dishes can help people keep healthy as the set contains many food groups.
"What I like most about the chilli sauce is a sense of creation. It tastes different each time I make it. It depends which flavours we want to make it strongest and sing on the tongue."
The entrants came up with many creative recipes and one with rak pak chee (parsley roots) in the spicy dip was perhaps the most attractive of the day.
This amateur nam prik kapi contest was arranged by Mahidol University's Institute of Nutrition to encourage people to enjoy Thai dishes that are not only heavenly but also healthy, and to conserve traditional Thai eating customs.
The institute's director, Assoc Prof Visith Chavasit, noted that the academy's main mission was to handle a widespread lack of nutrition among Thai people, particularly in northeastern Thailand. The severity of the problem has been gradually lessened over the years, while lack of iron, iodine and vitamin A remains a concern.
"But you know many areas of the country are now facing an over-nutrition issue," said Prof Visith "I mean the overconsumption of nutrients and food to the point at which health is negatively affected. This malnutrition can bring in many chronic diseases including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers. And we hope that this campaign will inspire Thai people to enjoy more Thai food that helps them maintain good health."
Asst Prof Aikkarach Kettawan, an expert from the institute, said that most Thai food contains fresh herbs and spices that have powerful antioxidant properties that are good for health. To enjoy better health, the professor also advised enjoying Thai food in the form of samrap.
Samrap is a meal of different dishes placed together in a tray. For instance, a common samrap may include nam prik kapi in the middle of the set with pla tu thawt (fried small mackerel) and cha-om choop kai thawt (acacia omelette) and fresh or lightly boiled vegetables.
Prof Aikkarach said by eating samrap style people were able to benefit from different food groups.
He explained that mackerel is an excellent source of protein and is rich in omega-3, helping support a healthy heart and brain.
Shrimp paste is enriched in amino acids, peptides and proteins that help support biological processes. Dried shrimp is high in calcium. Garlic has cardiovascular benefits. Chilli helps regulate blood sugar. Vegetables increase fibre, particularly small aubergines. Fibre not only helps promote bowel movement but also blocks fat absorption.
He said that parsley root helps people with stomach discomfort.
"Our body requires the help of nutrients to absorb calcium.
"And vitamin C in lime can help our body absorb calcium in dried shrimp effectively," he said.
"Enjoying green vegetables can help the body wash out toxins and helps give a boost to the digestive tract."
However, nam prik kapi is often considered too salty as the dish is made of shrimp paste, dried shrimp and fish sauce. To minimise salt intake, Prof Aikkarach advised a good way of enjoying the dish.
"Well, nam prik kapi is a dipping dish. To follow Thai traditional eating custom, people should bring veggies to dip into the chilli sauce and then eat it with steamed rice instead of scooping a spoonful of sauce and spreading it on rice." He added that eating more vegetables helps balance the spiciness of the dish. Cheerayut said: "Saltiness is the most important factor in making Thai chilli sauce. We have fresh ingredients, a creative recipe, but if we don't salt properly, it won't taste good. It's just as important not to over-salt as not an under-salt."
When it comes to enjoying vegetables, many people are concerned about potential pesticide residue. The institute's Assoc Prof Songsak Srianujata advised to thoroughly wash and boil vegetables in order to reduce the risk of consuming chemicals. One simple way is to put water in a bowl with a spoonful of salt or vinegar and then soak vegetables for about 15 minutes, then wash them again with water to get rid of any saltiness or sourness.
He advised leaving vegetables in boiled water for two to three minutes, or boiling the vegetables for one minute, as this would preserve their nutritional value. Avoid cooking them until they become tender.
"If people like vegetables that are cooked and tender, better to make vegetable soup so that they can make the most of vitamins and minerals from the soup," said Prof Songsak.
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- Writer: Sukhumaporn Laiyok