April 3, 2023

Tomato Coconut Salsa

Recipe: Pailin Chongchitnant

“I created this recipe several years ago when I needed to bring snacks to a potluck, and being who I am, I felt the need to make it at least a little bit Thai. So I got the idea to make a Thai version of chips and salsa, which simply meant that I would make a Thai salad, or a yum, with diced tomatoes. I decided to go with a more elaborate yum by adding coconut milk, Thai chili paste, toasted coconut, and peanuts to make it richer, and so that it wouldn’t just taste like a pico de gallo with fish sauce . . . not that that would be bad. It turned out to be a hit, which meant that it war- ranted sharing. It’s a delightful change from the usual chips and salsa, and you can even serve it over fish or chicken for dinner!” – Pailin Chongchitnant


Homemade Tamarind Paste

  • ½ pound (225 g) seedless tamarind pulp. Buy tamarind pulp that comes in a rectangular block, and it should be a product of Thailand. Do not use tamarind pulp from whole pods, as those are sweet tamarind meant for eating, not cooking.
  • 2 cups (500 ml) hot water

Thai Chili Paste

  • 1.7 ounces mild dried red chilies. Guajillo or puya peppers work well. If you can only find smaller spicy chilies, remove the seeds and pith from some or all of them.
  • 3.5 ounces garlic, about 2 heads, unpeeled
  • 7 ounces shallots, peeled, cut in 1-inch (2.5 cm) chunks
  • ¼ cup (30 g) dried shrimp, coarsely chopped if large
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon (80 g) finely chopped palm sugar, packed
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) tamarind paste, store-bought or homemade (p. 266)
  • 3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon (50 ml) fish sauce 1 teaspoon (5 ml) fermented shrimp paste (optional)
  • ¾ cup (185 ml) neutral oil + more if needed

Tomato Coconut Salsa

  • 2 tomatoes (about 9 ounces/250 g)
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) coconut milk 2 Thai chilies, minced
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons (30 to 45 ml) lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) Thai chili paste, store-bought or homemade (p. 258)
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) fish sauce
  • ½ teaspoon (2 ml) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (12 g) unsweetened dried shredded coconut
  • ¼ cup (35 g) roasted peanuts (optional, see note)
  • 2 tablespoons (15 g) small-diced shallots
  • 3 to 4 sprigs cilantro, chopped
  • Plain rice crackers or tortilla chips, for serving


Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Make Tamarind Paste

  1. Use your hands to pull apart the tamarind block into small chunks and place them in a large, heatproof mixing bowl.
  2. Pour the hot water over the tamarind and let it sit until it’s cool enough for you to handle, at least 20 minutes. You can let it sit for as long as you need at this point—the longer it sits, the easier the next step will be.
  3. Use your hand, preferably gloved if you don’t want tamarind stuck in your nails, to squeeze and scrunch the pulp to loosen it from the fibers. You should end up with something that has the consistency of a smoothie.
  4. Once you can feel that most of the pulp has been released from the fibers, strain the tamarind mixture into a pot through a sieve, but avoid a fine-mesh sieve, as the paste will be thick (Asian noodle strainers work great for this). Push as much of the liquid through as possible, and scrape the bottom of the sieve occasionally.
  5. Gradually pour about ½ cup (125 ml) room temperature water over the remaining fibers in the sieve while using your hand to mix it all around. This will rinse off any last little bit of tamarind still stuck in the fibers.
  6. You can use the tamarind paste right away for cooking, but for storage, cook it over medium-high heat until it boils, stirring constantly, because it is quite thick and can bubble and jump at you if you don’t stir. Allow it to bubble for 4 to 5 minutes to ensure that it is thoroughly heated through before turning off the heat.
  7. Transfer the hot tamarind paste to clean 1-cup (250 ml) mason jars. I like using the smaller ones so each jar will not be open for as long. Close the lids while the paste is still hot and let cool at room temperature before moving to the fridge for storage. You can also freeze the paste in ice cube trays and then store the cubes in freezer bags.

Make Thai Chili Paste

  1. Preheat the broiler to high and set the rack 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) away from the element.
  2. Place the dried chilies on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil them until charred in some spots, watching them all the time, as this takes less than 1 minute and they can burn in a few seconds. If you want a smokier flavor, flip the chilies and char the other side, which will take even less time than for the first. Remove the chilies from the oven, keeping the broiler on, and transfer them to a plate.
  3. Separate the garlic into cloves but leave the skin on, and place them on one side of the baking sheet. Place the shallots on the other side of the baking sheet, cut side down. Move the rack to the top level, then broil the garlic and shallots until charred spots have formed on the shallots, about 5 minutes. The garlic peel will not look like it has browned much, but the cloves themselves will be.
  4. Flip both the garlic and shallots and broil the other side until more charred spots form, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before peeling the garlic. The garlic skin should come off easily.
  5. Cut or break the chilies down into smaller pieces so they will fit in a coffee grinder. Grind them into a powder; you’ll need to do this in batches. Place the ground chilies in a bowl.
  6. Without cleaning the grinder, add the dried shrimp and grind into fine, fluffy flakes.
  7. Place the garlic and shallots in a food processor, then add all the other ingredients except the oil and process into a paste. Try to get it as fine as possible, but it does not need to be smooth. You can add some of the oil to help it grind more easily. Scrape the sides of the food processor down once or twice during the process.
  8. Pour the oil into a wok or large skillet, then add the chili paste. Don’t use a small pot or it will take much longer to cook off the liquid. Turn the heat to medium or medium-low and, using a rubber or silicone spatula, stir the paste constantly as it cooks, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan frequently, until the paste turns dark and thick, about 20 minutes. If it’s burning at the edges, lower the heat. When it’s ready, the oil should be separated from the paste, and it should have the consistency of a spread. If you want a looser, oilier paste, add more oil to reach the consistency you like.
  9. Taste the chili paste and adjust the seasoning with more fish sauce, sugar, or tamarind as needed. If it tastes generally weak, cook the paste longer to concentrate the flavors.
  10. Store in a tightly sealed jar in the fridge for at least 6 months. It can also be frozen indefinitely.

Make Tomato Coconut Salsa

  1. Dice the tomatoes into about ¼-inch (6 mm) pieces, then place in a strainer set over a bowl to remove excess liquid; let drain for at least 15 minutes. Do not discard the liquid.
  2. Make the dressing by boiling the coconut milk in a small pot over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until it’s thick; you should be able to run your spatula through it and leave a trail that doesn’t go away. Remove from the heat and add the chilies, 2 tablespoons (30 ml) lime juice, chili paste, fish sauce, and sugar; stir to mix.
  3. Toast the shredded coconut by putting it in a dry skillet and stirring it over medium-high heat until it’s a deep golden brown; this takes just a few minutes, so stir constantly—do not walk away. You can make it darker for a toastier flavor. Remove from the pan and add to a small mixing bowl.
  4. Grind the peanuts until mealy, using either a food processor or a mortar and pestle; there should not be any big chunks, but don’t turn them into peanut butter. Add the peanuts to the coconut, then add the drained tomatoes and shallots.
  5. Pour the dressing over and mix well. The mixture may look a bit thick right now, but the tomatoes will soon release some liquid. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more lime juice as needed.
  6. When ready to serve, if the salsa still looks too thick, add in some of the reserved tomato liquid. Stir in the chopped cilantro, and serve with tortilla chips or rice crackers, or use as a sauce to serve with fish or chicken.

Janis Nicolay


Excerpted from Sabai by Pailin Chongchitnant. © 2023 Pailin Chongchitnant. Photographs by Janis Nicolay. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved