Your guide to the many types of chili paste

 Nam prik pao

Not sure what type of chili paste to use in a recipe? Indexed blog Food52 can help. They have put together an excellent primer on the many varieties of chili paste. It turns out that there are dozens to choose from; you just need to know the general type to make the right selection.

Chili paste can be simply chili peppers ground into a paste, or it can mean a more complex seasoning base that has a few or many additional ingredients.  Food52 groups the sauces into five categories:  hot, fishy, spiced, fermented, or sweet(ish). Since most chili pastes have some level of heat, when they say hot, they mean fiery. These are the kinds of pastes that give a real kick to food. Examples of this category include Piros Arany, a Hungarian paste that is based on paprika, and the Peruvian Salsa de Rocoto.  

Many Southeast Asian sauces end up in the "fishy" category. Most have a hint of fish flavor, mostly added for the umami that things like shrimp paste can bring to a dish. Nam prik pao is one type of "fishy" chili paste. The "spiced" category includes the more familiar harissa along with the Egyptian shatta and adjika, which hails from the Caucus region. 

Fermented pastes like gochujang and sambal offer complex, earthy flavors. Rounding out the list are the "sweet(ish)" sauces, and Food52 places sriracha in this category, noting that once you "push past the heat,  this chili paste is indeed sweet." 

Photo of Nam prik pao from Mark Bittman's Kitchen Matrix by Mark Bittman

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