Spicy Thai Veggie Dip - Vegetarian Nam Prik Ong

Vegetarian Nam Prik Ong - Thai Tomato Dip

Vegetarian Nam Prik Ong - Thai Tomato Dip

Last month I mentioned that I wouldn't be growing tomatoes in the garden this year because I have a mild allergy. That doesn't mean I'll give them up without a fight. I've carried this Thai tomato dip recipe with me for 17 years and it holds too many good memories to toss it away just because of anaphylactic shock. Kidding. Kidding. Tomatoes just make my face red... as a tomato.

Seventeen years ago I was finishing up my undergrad degree in Michigan, living in a campus apartment, and working as a greenhouse assistant. I managed to contract pneumonia in the middle of the summer and my then-boyfriend's father, a doctor, advised against going back to work. The tropical-like humidity of the greenhouse apparently doesn't mix well with respiratory distress. Generously, he invited me to come live with their family instead of the campus cockroach motel that probably gave me pneumonia in the first place.

The doctor and his wife, both originally from Thailand, treated me like a son and truly made me feel like part of the family. There wasn't a day when I didn't hang out in the kitchen learning "mom's" recipes from Northern Thailand. I wasn't vegetarian yet so Nam Prik Ong—pork and tomato dipping sauce—was one of my favorites. I've since vegetarianzied it, and regardless of whether or not it still tastes authentic, it's incredibly delicious and versatile.

In Thailand Nam Prik Ong is served as a vegetable dip. However, I can make a whole meal out of it by slathering it on rice and eating with carrot sticks and steamed green beans. The sauce is tangy and spicy with a balanced sweetness, depending how much red curry paste you use and how sweet your tomatoes are. Mom always used cherry or grape tomatoes because of their concentrated sweetness. The large round pale pink grocery store tomatoes just don't work because their flavor doesn't even resemble that of a true tomato. That's what makes this recipe such a treat for tomato growers.

A few tips to get started:

1. The original recipe calls for fish sauce which, if you've never tasted it, is intensely salty with a pungent fermented fish aroma. It stinks! One could simply add extra salt to this recipe and it would be a fine replacement for fish sauce. But to get that extra depth of flavor, I make a vegetarian fish sauce replacement. Simply soak a square of dried kombu in just enough hot water to cover the piece of seaweed. Dissolve about two teaspoons of salt to make the liquid briney. To take the "funkiness" a step further (to replicate the true fermented stench of fish sauce) I add about a half teaspoon of fermented tofu.  

2. Store bought red curry paste greatly simplifies this dish. The alternative is to make your own using garlic, red chilis, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, and cilantro/coriander. When using store bought, be sure to look at the ingredient list as most brands of Thai curry use shrimp paste. Aroy-D is a well known Thai brand that is vegetarian. 

3. Unless you're using canned tomatoes (which does work for this recipe), you'll end up with all those chewy little tomato skin curls in your sauce. If you don't mind those, then simply chop your tomatoes and cook as-is. If tomato skins annoy you, toss your whole raw tomatoes into a pot of boiling water for a minute or two until the skins start to blister. Immediately transfer them to an ice water bath and then peel off the skins. Alternatively, you could pulse your tomatoes in a food processor but this will give you a less chunky sauce.

4. I've tried this recipe with Quorn burgers and Boca burgers. Quorn simply doesn't work as a substitute for the ground pork originally used. I use a 4-count box of Boca burgers, crumbled.

5. Serve the sauce on rice or as a warm veggie dip.  Try "dippable" veggies like carrot sticks, cucumber and zucchini slices, or blanched green beans. The sauce also pairs well with steamed cabbage.

Sometimes I like to punch up the recipe with fresh Thai chilis, kaffir lime leaf, and ginger. When I'm lazy I stick with the red curry paste.

Sometimes I like to punch up the recipe with fresh Thai chilis, kaffir lime leaf, and ginger. When I'm lazy I stick with the red curry paste.