Jaew: This simple Thai chili-lime sauce adds zing to any dish

Thai cuisine features a range of nam chim, or dipping sauces, for grilled meats such as moo ping, with jaew among the most common. It comes from the Isan region in northeast Thailand, and it’s loaded with powerful yet balanced flavor. Though variations abound, there are a few constants. It’s always made with dried red chilies, which are toasted, then pounded to flakes. Toasted rice powder, which both floral-­­sweet flavor, also is standard, as are fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar. Herbs and aromatics can include cilantro, scallions, garlic or shallots, creating a kaleidoscope of textures and flavors. In addition to grilled meats and seafood, we love it on salads, cold noodle dishes, and steamed white fish.

Across Bangkok, sidewalk hawkers offer sizzling pork skewers bathed in the smoky-sweet aroma of smoldering mangrove wood coals. An order may get you five skewers, a brick of sticky rice, and at least one chili dipping sauce (probably jaew), all loaded unceremoniously into a plastic bag, and all for a couple of bucks.

Called moo ping, these richly marinated skewers are basted with coconut milk as they cook, which softens the crisply charred edges of the meat and drenches it in creamy sweetness. Common throughout Thailand, they’re one of the country’s classic street foods, similar to the satays of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Moo ping traditionally is made with cheap, fatty cuts of pork that are sliced thin and steeped for several hours in a marinade made by pounding garlic, salt, white pepper and coriander (cilantro) root to a paste, then combining it with palm sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce and vegetable oil.

We loved the sweet-savory flavors of the skewers, as well as how the coconut milk baste both flavored the pork and kept it moist. At Milk Street, getting the flavors right was just a matter of a few substitutions to keep the ingredient list accessible to American home cooks. Adapting the technique proved to be more of a challenge.

For the meat, we wanted to use boneless country-style spare ribs, which were easy to slice appropriately thin. But the pork cooked up tough and dry because it wasn’t fatty enough. We loved the flavor of widely available—and fattier—pork shoulder, but it was a challenge to slice. Luckily, the solution was simple. Freezing the meat for a bit made it easy to slice perfectly thin, essential for cooking quickly, getting the proper charred edges and creating folds of meat on the skewers to trap the flavorful marinade.

For the marinade, we stuck mostly to tradition but opted for more widely available brown sugar and swapped the coriander root for cilantro stems, which gave us a similar flavor. After spending at least two hours covered in the refrigerator, the meat was threaded onto skewers. We took great care to fold the pieces, squishing them close together to create pockets for the marinade to stick to.

A fire of mangrove wood obviously was out, but we found that cooking over direct heat on a gas or charcoal grill worked fine. We let the skewers char slightly before we flipped them, brushed them with coconut milk, then flipped them again to finish cooking on each side.

The bright freshness of a simple cilantro chili sauce—our rendition of jaew—balanced the sweet saltiness of the rich meat, while the coconut milk added complexity without overwhelming the other flavors. Our moo ping could have come straight from a Bangkok street vendor.