Thai sweet chili sauce (Asian sweet chili sauce) offers a sweet heat and is a popular condiment and ingredient for many Asian-inspired recipes. The poppy pink hue brings a sweet and spicy element, but also color.
It is popular in Chinese restaurants and Thai restaurants and can be purchased at the grocery store… or made easily at home.
What is Thai Sweet Chili Sauce?
In Thailand, this verstile sauce is called nam chim kai, however it is popular, Malaysian, and Western cuisine as well and known as thai chili sauce or just chile sauce.
This has been a little confusing in the states because Heinz is also quite famous for a ketchup-based chile sauce that is much sweeter in nature. Thai chile sauce has a base of rice vinegar, a sweetening agent (either sugar or fruit) and either freshly chopped chile peppers or crushed dried chile flakes.
One thing that has always baffled me is the “chili” sauce. Chili, with an “i”, generally refers to the meat-based stew, chili, however chile, with an “e”, is the pepper.
What’s in Sweet Thai Chili Sauce?
The ingredient list for homemade Thai chili sauce is pretty short and takes only a few minutes. Cilantro is not used in commercial versions of the bottled sauce, but it popular as an addition when using it for dipping.
- Water- Water is actually the base and needed to thin out the sauce while the sugar melts and flavors marry. If the sauce ever feels too thick, thin it out with just a tablespoon of water.
- White sugar- White sugar is what we used to balance the spicy flavors. It is a clean and straightforward sweetener, letting the chile shine.
- Rice vinegar – Rice vinegar comes either plain or seasoned, either one is fine. It is a vinegar made from fermented rice and popular in all styles of Asian cuisine. A substitute for rice vinegar would be white wine vinegar, white vinegar or apple cider vinegar.
- Sambal oelek or red chile paste- This translates to “ground chili sauce” and is made from various types of chilis ground into a paste and paired with chopped garlic, ginger and other spices. A little packs a large, spicy punch and should be used in moderation. It is sometimes labeled cock sauce (the one with a rooster on it). Sriracha is also popular and very similar, but smooth without the viable chile pepper seeds. This ingredient gives the sauce its rosy hue and also heat. You can grab a bottle at the store or make your own.
- Crushed red chile flakes– I use these in addition to the sambal oelek, but you can use one or the other or omit the red chili peppers for a milder sauce that will appeal to all spice levels. See my notes below on getting the red color.
- Garlic– Fresh garlic gives a pungent garlic taste while bottled garlic is a tad sweeter. Choose the best option for your palette.
- Soy sauce– This acidic umami taste helps to balance the other flavors for a complex sauce. Tamari can also be used and is gluten free.
- Fresh cilantro- Optional, cilantro gives a fresh, green flavor.
- Corn starch- Used for thickening, it also gives a glossy finish without any grainy texture. A swap would be arrowroot, however the sauce might be less shiny. Commercial sauces use xanthan gum, potato starch or tapioca starch.
Some versions of this sweet Asian sauce also include fresh grated ginger, fish sauce for umami flavors, red bell peppers and fresh whole chile peppers like red jalapenos or generic red chiles.
Alternatives for a sweetener include brown rice syrup, brown sugar honey or even maple syrup, but be mindful that the underlying flavors (like molasses) will also impact the sauce.
How To Make Thai Sweet Chili Sauce
Many versions of homemade Thai sweet chili sauce recipes just have the cook whisk together all of the ingredients and call it a day. My version uses heat, which helps to dissolve the sugar more efficiently and also amplifies the flavors and their ability to meld.
- Combine all of the ingredients (except for the cornstarch) in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat for just 5 minutes. Stir and watch carefully because sugar sauces have the tendency to burn quickly.
- Make a cornstarch slurry from the cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of water.
- Remove the chili sauce from the heat and whisk in the slurry. Stir in chopped cilantro, if desired.
- Allow to cool and as it does, the sauce will thicken. If using as a dipping sauce, add 1-2 teaspoons additional vinegar to make it easily dippable.
How do I Get My Sauce Red?
The sad truth is that most bottled versions of Thai sweet chili sauce (and sweet and sour sauce) use food coloring. The sambal oelek will give it some color, but if you desire more, a red food dye will need to be used.
To no throw off the flavor, like many red food colorings do, opt for a natural dye like beet extract or paprika extract.
How Do I Use Sweet Chili Sauce?
After you discover the versatility of this spicy sauce, you will be sad you always used it on Asian meals. It can be used as a dipping sauce, marinade or an ingredient within other sauces.
Here are a few of my favorites ways to use sweet thai chili sauce:
- Dipping for dumplings and potstickers
- Toss it on chicken wings
- Grilled or fried shrimp
- Chicken nugget dipping sauce
- Stir into soups or stews
- Serve on crackers
- Stir into potato salad
- Mix with vinegar to make salad dressing
Storage & Freezing
How do I store sweet chili sauce? If used that day, this sauce can be stored at room temperature. You can store homemade sweet chili sauce in the refrigerator for up to a week in an airtight container. Since it isn’t bottled, it also doesn’t contain additives or preservatives.
This Asian sauce can also be frozen in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag for up to 3 months.
The sauce will congeal, so heat in the microwave or in a saucepan on the stovetop to bring it’s dippy life back. Add a small amount of water to thin it, if needed.
More Homemade Sauces
Thai Sweet Chili Sauce Recipe
- 1 cup water
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sambal oelek
- 1 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
- 2 teaspoons garlic finely minced
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon cilantro finely minced, optional
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- In a small saucepan, whisk together the water, sugar, vinegar, sambal oelek, chile flakes, garlic and soy sauce over medium heat. Continue to stir until sugar melts and all ingredients are combined, approximately 5 minutes.
- Whisk together the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of water and then combine with the sauce. Remove from heat.
- Allow to cool. The mixture will thicken further. When cool, fold in cilantro.
- If you’ve tried this recipe, come back and let us know how it was in the comments or the star ratings.