This blog post contains an excerpt of a book I have written about the legendary, brave and informative 6,002-mile Thailand tasting trek I went on in 2007-2008. The full-length book will be published in early 2016.
Not Spicy, Not Tasty
Some of the things you never want to hear:
Your Doctor: “We’ve received the results from the lab tests, and, well, I’m afraid we have bad news.”
Your Father: “Your Mother and I are very disappointed in you.”
Or a Thai chef saying “mai phet” (not spicy) when tasting something you have made in the kitchen, implying that you didn’t add enough red-hot chiles to make the dish suitable for the local palate that favors spice. A lot of spice.
The Thais have a saying — “Mai phet, mai arawy” — “If it isn’t spicy, it isn’t tasty.” As an enthusiastic amateur attempting to make traditional Thai food, I watched the Thai chefs wherever I went in Thailand to learn the ingredients and techniques to make the broad array of unfamiliar dishes. I also bought Thai language cookbooks to see the many variations on the traditional recipes. With the crash course I took in the Thai written language, I could (very slowly) read through cookbooks written in Thai. The quantity of chile spice used in the Thai language recipes could be twice what a comparable Western recipe would recommend. I wanted to be able to prepare the recipes I learned with visiting Western family and friends. Yet I was afraid that if I were to share a full-strength recipe containing enough chiles to stun a grizzly bear as favored by my cooking teachers, I might cause cardiac arrest among diners not used to traditional full-strength chile laden Thai food. So when recreating the Thai food enjoyed on the trip I have since tried and retried to adjust the spices to a level I thought my friends more accustomed to muted flavors would enjoy without them threatening me with culinary litigation. I’m still not sure these original recipes can be exported without injury to the delicate palates unused to the pungent true flavors of traditional Thai cooking. Therefore, I continue to return to the kitchen to see if I can make something that is both arawy and phet. Wish me luck.
A Primer on the Blessed Chile Pepper
Although the chile is almost an icon for Thai cooking, it is not native to the country (the chile is native to Central and South America). A precise history of the arrival of the chile in Thailand has not been fully documented, but it was thought to have arrived in the 16th century. Whether Portuguese traders, Indian merchants or Spanish explorers brought it is a matter of debate, but since its arrival, it has been adopted as a cornerstone of the cuisine. Prior to the blessed advent of the chile, local chefs used peppercorns and roots like garlic, ginger and galangal to give food a kick.
There are at least a dozen varieties of chile used in Thai cooking. One of the most common is the “bird’s eye chile” or “mouse dropping chile” called phrik khii nuu. It is used in its raw form for stir frys, in sauces and in pounded relishes. The dried version is pounded into chili powder or sometimes the whole chili is deep-fried as a colorful topping for a dish. These chilies are green or red and are about two inches long.
The other common chili is the “sky pointing chile” or phrik chii faa. These longer three-to-four-inch chiles are often dried, deseeded and softened in water prior to being pounded into the many variations of chile pastes called kaeng.
The third type of chile frequently eaten is the banana-stalk chile (phrik yuak), about four-to seven-inches long. It is seen pickled in vinegar as a condiment for noodle soups.
Without Chile There Is No Life
Why do the Thais include a spicy taste in many (but not all) dishes? These are my theories:
- Spice provided by chiles combines well with the salty taste from fish sauce and shrimp paste, the tangy taste of lime and tamarind and the sweet taste of palm sugar or coconut cream. A skilled chef can create a blend of the individual ingredients that allows the eater to taste them all in balanced unity.
- Traditionally, spicy dishes helped enliven the plain diet of people who lived on rice, fish and vegetables from the family garden, market or forest. Chiles also are a good source of vitamins B and C and provitamin A, as well as magnesium and potassium. In addition, chilies have an enzyme that helps the gastro-intestinal tract kill parasites in food. Capsaicin is the active component in chiles that gives the fruit its spicy flare, triggers endorphins in the body and accelerates the body’s metabolism with healthy effects for efficient digestion.
- Chilies are inexpensive to purchase and easy to grow in Thailand’s tropical climate. Thailand’s birds like to feast on chiles and spread the seeds in their droppings, so the chili plant grows wild throughout the country. Birds do not have the same pain receptors as humans so they do not feel the chile heat. If I don’t hide the chilies in my open-air kitchen from the birds, I often return from the market to find what is left of my chili supply scattered on the floor after the local bird flock has come by to snack. I don’t mind sharing, but I have to get dinner on the table for my friends as well. As a neighborly concession, I leave a handful of chiles out for the birds to eat as fair trade for my enjoyment of their beautiful warbles and trills. Moreover, they may deposit the seeds around the neighborhood and initiate a new crop.
- Most Thai meals eaten family-style include less spicy dishes, along with plain boiled jasmine rice or steamed sticky rice as the center point of the meal, to offset the chile heat and accommodate diners who don’t prefer chili spice (such as little kids).
- The chile fruit can help induce a sweat to cool off the body (not that I’ve ever needed a catalyst to get a sweat going in Thailand’s tropical climate, but every little bit helps).
That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger
I had adapted to the strength of the chile in Thai cooking so much that I missed the spicy flare when I didn’t get my daily dose (these days were infrequent). If a dish didn’t contain chile and the diner desired it, they could commonly find fresh chiles floating in the ever-present tabletop jar of phrik naam plaa.
A common question from a new Thai acquaintance is “Kin phet dai mai?” or “Can you eat spicy food?” Thais would ask if you could eat chile, in the way a Texas rancher might ask if you eat meat — an answer in the negative would not engender sympathy but some measure of disdain, as in “you aren’t getting the full experience and you aren’t one of us.”
Chefs and waiters would closely query me if I could eat spicy food. Sometimes I was counseled that a dish was very spicy and the server would stand behind me with a pitcher of water to refill my glass or possibly pour over my head if I burst into flames. I was reminded of one of those B-grade 1950s horror movies where part of the film promotion would be an actress playing a registered nurse on site to tend to the viewers overwhelmed by fright.
Thailand Travel: Why is All Thai Food So Spicy? The reasons are many but the effect is the same — Thai food is one of of the world’s most dynamic cuisines.
Kitty was a typical Thai eater―if there wasn’t a chile flare in the main component of her meal, she wasn’t satisfied. My remarking on her chile-intensive diet yielded an impassioned speech on one of her most dearly held beliefs―that chiles gave strength. I turned this emphatic statement into a joke, and then a question for the chefs and vendors we met during our travels. Those Thais questioned if chile was an underpinning of the hale constitutions of Thai people always gave the statement agreement bordering on religious conviction.
We met a pharmacist who expressed an interest in conversing with me in English and I posed the question about chiles and health in my native tongue. He demonstrated the scientific basis of his conviction by showing me a bottle of carminative syrup, taken by Thais to cure stomach ailments, gas and colic. He noted it contained an extract of chile (intended to aid digestion) to demonstrate his point. Having brought science to bear on what Kitty knew as folk wisdom settled the issue as far as she was concerned.
The science of measuring the spicy heat in chilies was developed by an American researcher in 1912. The Scoville Organoleptic Test, named after its inventor Wilbur Scoville, measures the number of times that an extract of the chili being tested must be diluted with a sugar water solution before the spicy capsaicin (the spicy element in the chili fruit) cannot be tasted. The hotter the chili, the more sugar water solution would be needed to quell the fire.
This Scoville scale measures the common sweet or bell pepper at zero Scoville units since it contains no capsaicin, while the common Thai phrik khii nuu pepper logs in at 80,000 to 100,000 Scoville units. The even hotter chilies, such as the scotch bonnet or the habañero, register approximately 300,000 Scoville units for the common variety and a startling 800,000 Scoville units for the fear-evoking “black habañero” spicy devil.
To extinguish the chili flame while dining, try rolling a ball of rice around in your mouth to absorb the chili oils. Other techniques include eating yogurt, drinking milk or eating something sweet (echoing the Scoville sugar water treatment). As the capsaicin is not water soluble, mouthfuls of water, beer and liquor tend to relocate the chili spice to other areas of the mouth, providing only temporary relief.
Thai diners revel in and revere spicy and pungently flavored food and often find Western food too bland, boring and monochromatic. A Thai friend announced with eager anticipation a business trip to America, tempered with deep concern over if she could get anything decent to eat. I provided her with a six-pack of dried packaged Mama Brand instant noodles in Tom Yam Kung (spicy and sour shrimp) flavor. This product comes with a robust spicy sauce and is to the common Western Oodles of Noodles instant noodle crap what a Rolls Royce is to a Yugo. She credits me with saving her life during the overseas ordeal. The Mama brand is so popular that some food vendors carry it as a supplement to their other noodle offerings.
One of my many moneymaking ideas includes hot chili-flavored toothpicks for sale in Thailand. Tom Yam Kung flavor? People like mint-flavored toothpicks, don’t they?