Secret Weapon: How To Make Chef Ford Fry's Sweet-Spicy Thai Chile

A sweet-hot Thai chile sauce that's got it all

Chef and restaurateur Ford Fry of The Optimist and King + Duke in Atlanta appreciates a good contrast between heat and sweetness in his food. So when he discovered a sweet-hot Thai chile paste atop an otherwise simple boiled chicken dish at a food truck in Portland, Oregon, he knew he was halfway to something special.

Fry found the paste—nam prik pao—in an Asian market and started adding other classic Thai flavors like fresh chiles, lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, lemongrass and Thai basil to it to make a special sauce of his own (get the recipe). But simply blending the ingredients together resulted in a sharp chile taste Fry knew would overpower the subtler flavors he wanted to pair it with. So he came up with a clever trick: Soaking the chopped chiles overnight in honey to replace the harsh tang and add a bit of sweetness, resulting in a bright and balanced dressing Fry uses all around his kitchen.

Here are four ways to bring it into yours.

Skirt Steak Salad

Use the sauce to balance a savory-sweet salad with some fresh flavors and a touch of funk. Rub ¼ cup of nam prik pao sauce into a pound of skirt steak, then let it marinate for at least an hour at room temperature. Bring a grill up to very high heat and sear the steak on both sides for about two minutes so that the outside is charred while the inside is left medium-rare. Let the steak sit for four minutes, then cut across the grain and layer the pieces on top of a salad of sliced cucumbers, red onions, Thai basil and fresh mint leaves. Whisk two tablespoons of sugar into ¼ cup rice vinegar, add a few drops of fish sauce for salt and drizzle over the salad.

Chicken and Rice

Fry pays homage to the chicken dish that turned him on to nam prik pao with a slightly more complex version, subbing in his sauce for the straight chile paste. He starts by simmering a whole chicken in stock, then using the poaching liquid to thin out some of his nam prik pao for a potent gravy (aim for three parts liquid to one part pao). Serve the chicken over fragrant jasmine rice, and spoon the gravy over the whole thing so the rice soaks up all of the juicy chicken and chile flavors. "It brings out the umami in the chicken, so you're hit with the sweet, spicy and salty elements all together," says Fry.

Vegetables with Bite

To bring out the natural sweetness in hearty vegetables, rub greens like Chinese broccoli with a little oil and grill until they just start to soften, then dress with ¼ cup of sauce and toss the vegetables back on the grill for another five minutes, searing in the flavors. Or split a Japanese eggplant in half, score it crosswise and brush the dressing into its crevices, then pop it under a broiler until it's charred and soft. For Fry's particular favorite, take two clusters of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, break them in quarters, then drizzle each piece with 1½ tablespoons of the sauce before grilling. The liquid released by the vegetables mixes with the condiment, adding a depth of flavor Fry can't get enough of.

Twice-Fried Chicken

Elevate traditional Korean fried chicken with an even more complex glaze. Submerge four whole legs (thighs and drumsticks) overnight in a brine of two quarts of water, ½ cup salt, ⅛ cup of sugar, one stalk of roughly chopped ginger and five pieces of star anise. Drain the chicken and toss it in a mixture of equal parts all-purpose flour and cornstarch. Fry at 325 degrees Farenheit in vegetable or peanut oil, then let the legs cool on a rack until they reach room temperature. Right before serving, fry them again in 350 to 375 degree oil for a few minutes, until the skin turns shatteringly crisp, then toss the hot legs into ⅓ cup of nam prik pao sauce. Sprinkle the finished product with roughly chopped Thai basil and mint. The result is an incredibly crunchy, sweet, salty, herbaceous and spicy fried chicken.