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SPICE UP YOUR LIFE - Hot, Raw & Spicy Thai Chillies

SPICE UP YOUR LIFE

   Hot chilli peppers. Never has there been a food that’s provoked such opposite reactions such as wonder and wariness, love and hate. If just the sight of some hot chillies in your Thai dish makes your stomach spasm, there is good news for you: not all chillies are created equally. Some are strong, while some others are sweeter. Let’s get to know more about peppers as there are thousands of varieties around the world.

   Peppers are commonly broken down into three groupings: bell peppers, sweet peppers and chilli peppers. Most popular pepper varieties are seen falling into one of these categories or as a cross between them, Peppers come in a wide range of colours, flavours, shapes, heat levels and sizes. From small compact plants, to giant monsters that can get over 9 feet tall, with peppers ranging in size from a tiny fraction of an inch to over a foot long, and incoming in nearly every colour of the rainbow! Currently, over thirty are known as chilli peppers. The majority of these are actually “wild” pepper species (found growing primarily in South America), including the Chilli Cardenasii, Chilli Eximium and Chilli Chacoense. In addition to species and variety names, peppers are also broadly categorized as either sweet peppers or hot peppers. Sweet peppers (a misnomer, not all are sweet) refers to those without any heat, typically used for flavouring, cooking or stuffing, like bell peppers. Hot peppers refer to those that taste hot, and can range from the relatively mild anaheim to the blazingly hot habanero.

   In Thailand, the term “Thai chilli pepper” is a bit misleading. Despite the common belief, there is no single “Thai chilli pepper” though most candidates for the title are small in size and high in heat or pungency. There are at least 79 separate varieties of chilli that have appeared from three species in Thailand.

  • Prik Chee Fah (chilli pepper) for example, is a Thai pepper that isn’t too hot and often used for its colour and spiciness. It comes in green and red varieties.
  • Prik Yueang is another fairly common pepper from Thailand. It is pale green and really isn’t hot in any way.
  • Prik Kee Nuu (pequin pepper) is perhaps the most famous of the major peppers from Thailand. Its name literally means “mouse poo peppers” in Thai. This tiny hot chilli leaves unseen evidence in the food but once you have taken a bite, your tongue will leave you in no doubt that it is there. It will probably be the one you think about when you hear ”Thai Chilli Pepper”, because that’s the hot one. This chilli pepper is so spicy that only the habenero and scotch bonnet peppers can top it. This is one of those peppers that, if you are an average human being, can send you sky-high and straight to the nearest pitcher of water if you bite right into it. Maybe that is why it is often referred to as Thai Dragon Pepper. But don’t expect much help from water! Instead, make a small ball of steamed rice and sugar and place it on your tongue and then roll it around your mouth. The rice and sugar help to absorb and neutralise the effects of the capsaicin. Substitute honey instead of sugar and the soothing effect is almost immediate.

   The “heat” of chilli peppers was historically measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), which is the amount of chilli extract added to sugar syrup before its heat becomes detectable to a panel of tasters. On the Scoville Heat Units, the bell pepper sits at zero Scoville heat units, the jalapeno rates 4,000, the Thai Dragon around 80,000 to 100,000 and the habaneros between 300,000 to 550,000.

   That’s a lot of power for something only about an inch to length to a maximum of about 3.5 inches - smaller ones are generally hotter. Thankfully, this chilli pepper isn’t just about heat but also about adding zest and sweetness to dishes.


THAI CUISINE & CHILLIES.

   The intensity is enough to reduce a grown man to tears, hence the reason why the chilli pepper is king in Thai cuisine. Though not originally from the continent, people quickly adopted this spice and used it to give Thai food its well-known kick. Used in almost every dish, from simple vegetarian to gourmet, it literally defines the food here: heart-pumping and mouth-burningly hot.

   Whether chill-hot or comparatively bland, harmony is the guiding principle behind each dish. Thai cuisine is essentially a marriage of centuries-old influences harmoniously combined into something uniquely Thai. Characteristics of Thai food depend on who cooks it, for whom it is cooked and for what occasion. Dishes can be refined and adjusted to suit all palates.

   Originally, traditional Thai cooking methods were stewing. baking or grilling. Chinese influences saw the introduction of frying, stir-frying and deep-frying. Culinary influences from the 17th century onwards included Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese. Chillies were introduced to Thai cooking during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who had acquired a taste for them while serving in South America.

   Overpowering pure spices were toned down and enhanced from fresh herbs such as lemon grass and galangal. Eventually, fewer and less spices were used in Thai curries, while the use of fresh herbs increased. It is generally acknowledged that Thai curries burn intensely, but briefly, whereas other curries with strong spices, burn for longer periods. Instead of serving dishes in courses, a Thai meal is served all at once, permitting diners to enjoy complementary combinations of different tastes.

   A proper Thai meal should consist of a soup, a curry dish with condiments, a dip with accompanying fish and vegetables. A spicy salad may replace the curry dish. The soup can also be spicy, but the curry should be replaced by a non-spicy item. There must be harmony of tastes and textures within individual dishes of the meal.


FACTS ABOUT THAI CHILLIES

  1. Chillies didn’t reach Thailand until the 16th century when they were brought over by the Portuguese. Before then, peppercorns had been used to spice food.
  2. The seeds are not what makes the chilli hot. While the Capsaicin is present in all parts of the pepper, it is concentrated mainly in the membrane. Removing the seeds and as much of the white membrane as possible can alleviate some of the heat of the chilli.
  3. Chillies are rich in Vitamin C, originally eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy, long before oranges were discovered as the tastier alternative.
  4. Whether it is fresh or dried: the smaller the chilli, the hotter it will be. Prik Kee Nuu Suan, smaller than a fingernail, packs the biggest punch, but the larger Prik Yueang or dark green Prik Chee Fah can be a welcome relief. Red varieties are typically hotter than green.
  5. If you do not want your dishes to be spicy, just say “mai phed” to the waiter. And if it is still too chilli-infused, don’t start drinking a lot of cold water, it will not help. Instead, try to eat white rice or yoghurt-based drink which will calm your burning tongue quicker. 
  6. One of the main theories why Thai people have spicy tastes maybe because of the sweat. Spices stimulate sweating and, via evaporation, cause an increase in cooling the body down in hot climates.

April 2023.

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