3/4 cup Thai dried red chiles
Generous 1/2 cup shallots, unpeeled
Scant 1/2 a cup garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce, or substitute scant 1/2 teaspoon salt for a vegetarian version
Place a large heavy skillet over medium-low heat, add the chiles, and dry-roast them, moving them around with a spatula as necessary to prevent burning, for 4 to 5 minutes; they’ll darken and become brittle. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Meantime, slice the unpeeled shallots lengthwise in half, or quarters if they’re very large. Place a second heavy skillet over medium heat, add the shallots and garlic cloves, and dry-roast until well browned on one side; then turn them over and dry-roast on the other side. When they’re well softened and roasted, 5 to 8 minutes, remove from the heat and set aside. Alternatively, you can also use a charcoal or gas grill to roast the chiles, shallots, and garlic; in village Thailand, grilling is usually done over a small wood fire.
Break off the chile stems and discard them, then break up the chiles (they’ll break easily) and place in a food processor or large mortar. Some recipes call for discarding the chile seeds, but it seems a pity to waste their heat and flavor, so we suggest you keep them. Peel the shallots and garlic, coarsely chop, and toss into the processor or mortar. Process or pound to a smooth paste (the chile seeds will still be whole). You may have to scrape down the sides of the bowl or mortar several times as you work. Processing is very quick; using a mortar “is more traditional and will take about 10 minutes or more, depending on the type of mortar and your energy.
Place a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, and when it is hot, add the paste. Stir gently with a wooden spatula as the paste heats in the oil and absorbs it. After 4 to 5 minutes, it will have darkened slightly and will give off a wonderful slightly sweet roasted chile aroma. Remove from the heat, stir in the fish sauce, and let cool to room temperature.
Transfer to a glass jar and store, well sealed, in the refrigerator.
MAKES just over ½ cup paste
NOTE: To serve the paste as a table sauce, you may wish to add more fish sauce or salt and a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice and a little sugar.