You can find spicy foods in many countries of the world from China to Mexico, but rarely will you find any spicier than Thai foods. This spiciness is almost always thanks to the ubiquitous Thai bird chili. This deceptively small chili packs a wallop that will make tears flow from the eyes of grown men.
Thais add these chili’s to many of their dishes, from the northern larb dishes to the southern curries. Even when the dish doesn’t contain chili directly, you can find a variety of chili condiments on the table at any Thai restaurant. These condiments range from dried chili powder to variations on nam prik, which means “chili water” in Thai and can be made from fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice and of course…Thai bird chili’s. Even when eating something as plain as fried rice, most Thais will add some nam prik to spice things up a bit.
The two most common Thai bird chili’s used in cooking are the prik kee nu and the prik chee faa chili’s. There are other varieties used, but nearly every dish will contain one of these two chili’s. Both are extremely spicy and not to be taken lightly. The prik kee nu is the smaller and hotter of the two chili’s. If you are not used to spicy food, you will want to exercise caution when you first experience true Thai foods. I’ve rarely found food in America that comes anywhere near Thai food in terms of heat. Even food that we would consider extra hot is mild in comparison with what you can get at nearly any food stall here in Thailand.
Both the prik kee nu and the prik chee faa come either green or red (I haven’t noticed much difference in heat between the two colors) and range from 1-3 inches in length. You can find these chili’s at most any Oriental grocery store in America. If you have to travel to a larger city to find them keep in mind that they do freeze well and will keep for up to year in the freezer. Wash the chili’s, dry them thoroughly and then place them in either a ziplock bag or tupperware before placing them in the freezer. This will give you an always available source of chili.
The dried prik kee nu is known as prik hang (hang means “dry” in Thai) and is even hotter if that’s possible. Prik hang are also available from Oriental groceries. Note that the heat of the chili seems to be inversely related to it’s size. That is, smaller chili’s are much hotter than larger chili’s. When we were living in the U.S. we used about 1/2 pound of these per month, but now that we are in Thailand we use much less at home since we often get our food from the street vendors. You can also grind these chili’s to make an powerful chili powder. First, roast the chili’s in a wok until they begin to brown. Then place them in a blender and blend until powdered. A small amount of this chili powder will go a very long way!
Thai food is not only about the heat. Although many dishes are spicy, they also combine elements of sour, sweet, bitter and salty. In addition, Thais typically eat family style and many dishes are served at the same time. So, there may be several non-spicy dishes to balance the spicy dishes on the table. The rice that is eaten with every meal also serves to cool the mouth when eating spicy food. So, next time you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in your favorite Thai restaurant, try eating some plain white rice to cool things down.
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