Pros: Balanced flavor, simple/natural ingredients, versatile when used in other dishes, sauces, and dressings
Cons: Hard to open bottle, limited distribution, exits bottle in shamful fashion
Many years ago a friend of mine, Fred, suddenly died of a heart attack while hiking with his wife Chelean and their four children. Fred was a physical therapist like his wife, but was trained in the culinary arts. He chose physical therapy as a profession after suffering through the never-ending weekend and night hours as a chef. However, his understated passion for food persisted in his life. I being a mom-trained Middle Eastern-style amateur loved to watch his quiet precision and creativity in the kitchen. This is a man who taught me how to make Syrian bread in a cast iron skillet instead of an oven, how not to fear pastry, and how to keep my mouth closed and eyes open for method instead of the chaotic style I chose to pursue in the kitchen. There was one dish on which he took a back seat in the kitchen to his Filipino-wife, Chelean__ lumpia.
Unfortunately, it was only after his death that she made this classic Filipino dish. Unlike Fred, Chelean cooked simply and talked so much more. We sat in her kitchen and exchanged stories about Fred as she fried these egg roll-looking lumpia. I tried to dissect what I thought were dozens of ingredients. After too many guesses, Chelean said all she puts inside the spring roll wrappers is ground beef (also made with ground pork), chopped green onions, salt and pepper. I tried another and another and another and was amazed at its simplicity but varied flavors. As my artist-dad repeated growing up and now to his grandkids today, “Simplicity is the essence of good taste.” That described my mother’s simple Lebanese stuffed grape leaves recipe as well as Chelean’s lumpia.
What embedded the goodness of lumpia deep into the limbic centers of hunger and satiation in my brain, or more colloquially stated, “Took it up a notch …or six,” was the red spring roll sauce Chelean offered in a smaller dish for lumpia dipping. Then dipping turned into diving and by the end of the night there was full spring roll sauce emersion. The wonderful sauce in question goes by the brand name “Pantai Sweetened Chili Sauce”. I’m here to tell you this sauce is unmatched in its flavor enhancement without any MSGing. Here are the ingredients that don’t require analysis from the Journal of Toxicology: Sugar, Water, Red Chilies (14%), Turnip, Carrot, Salt, Garlic, Modified Corn Starch (E1422), Acetic Acid (E260). In the days of High Fructose Corn Syrup and Monodyethyphosphoroustrigylcerhydropentait’sgonnakillmeanaine, this simple ingredient list looks like it was made by some guy in horned-rimmed glasses in Thailand. And lo and behold, that guy’s on the bottle. Lest you laugh at his geeky picture, you’ll probably catch his picture at the palace or on Thailand’s lucrative “The Lumpia Channel”. The guy in the picture won a National medal in Thailand for the sauce. Dude won a medal! But what is it like?
In the Zen Tradition, any sauce of this beauty has an ugly side as well. The sauce immediately drops out of the tall thin-throated bottle in a suspicious manner. +++ADD distractible epinion detail here+++. The cap on every bottle seems tightened by an angry Thai powerlifter who unlike the sauce creator is angry for never having won a medal. Prepare thy hands and then thy Channel Locks to open the top of these bottles. Now back to the suspicious sauce dropping. Long shavings of red pepper, orange carrot, and iridescent turnip are suspended in the nearly clarified sugar base. Therefore, young children who may blurt out the bodily function they’re reminded of in front of Uncle Ahmed of Aunt Fanny should be distracted as the sauce pours. Colorful orange, red, and iridescent strands catch up to the falling clarified sugar sauce base in a plopping descent similar to Heinz ketchup on LSD. Please do not let that deter your tasting. Next, fight off the flashbacks of dozens of Asian red sauces that either taste like only a zestier form of penicillin, melted cotton candy mixed with extra Red 40, or diabetes-test elixir. Grab your lumpia, spring roll, egg roll, and chicken nugget, et. al., close your eyes, fight the red sauce images by going to your “happy place”, dip until the roll reaches bottom of the bowl fulla' Pantai, and taste.
And the flavor to me? The flavor is more “caramelly” than teeth-edging sweet. Now about the chili peppers Aunt Fanny. Fear not. These are sweet peppers not requiring medical releases before eating like the sauce on those buffalo wings you choked on at the AARP convention. The sweet and barely zesty heat meets a brine flavor that sent my overly cynical culinary brain into a state of “huh?” The “huh?” is a place of wonder as you’ll have to reclassify this taste in the first-kiss-of-certain-foods-category. The garlic is evident but not relationship ending. How I cringe at garlic as a food in chunks rather than a background enhancer in minimalist pieces as in this sauce. The acetic acid is not a Schedule II controlled substance. Rather, it’s the natural tanginess evident in citrus fruits. If “Pantai Sweetened Chili Sauce” was a rock band, the sweet’s playing lead, the tangy’s playing back up, the salty’s on the drums, the garlic’s in the base, and the turnip’s backstage adjusting the subtle lights and sound on my pallet.
I’ve also used this product on fried and baked fish, chicken dishes, and as an ingredient on numerous sauces, salad dressings, and marinades. In stir-fry I…well…stir it in. On beef, it moistened and powered up my burgers when kneaded in the meat amidst other spices before grilling. I wouldn’t suggest it in pasta dishes, but like I have to tell you that? I just didn’t want to come off as an e-hack-epinioner for Pantai. I’m just a guy, using Pantai. Oh! Sorry, that was a shameless if not goofy slogan. I’m really just a guy in the kitchen who likes this sauce.
Another drawback of this product is distribution. “Pantai Sweetened Chili Sauce” is not found in our mainstream grocery stores in North Carolina. I purchase it at a small Asian food supply shop. It’s also not in every Asian shop, as I found out at one closer to my house. It was at this shop I bought a competitor, and it brought back yucky-sweet red sauce memories. Cost for the 13.2oz was only $2.75, but even at $4.00 in some stores it’s less than those ritzy specialty sauces in the 4oz. mini-bottles. Freshness is also important. Not having serious chemical preservatives beyond this sauce’s naturally occurring acetic acid means you have to avoid buying this in overrun stores. I bought some at a usually wonderful organic overrun store and found the sauce to be sweet-n-stale. Asian stores usually have a lot of turnover in this sauce as I usually see it’s rows bought-down while competitor’s sauces are neatly arranged and full.
So, wrap-up and fry your lumpia, fire-up your air wrench to open up a bottle of “Pantai Sweetened Chili Sauce”, and dive in. The sauce is fine!