A Dozen Chilli A Day

Did you ever get high from eating chilli? You could, as I do, and become addicted (like me). These pronouncements are not the fantasy of a chilli junkie: capsaicin, the ingredient in chilli that produces the hot sensation, triggers a flush of endorphins. Thai restaurants know this; and one of my favourite lunchtime meals is called kee mao – meaning ‘shit drunk’, referring to the pungency of this noodle dish that gives you a spicy high. It is indeed an endorphin rush so convincing, especially since it is coupled with a sweltering and reddening of the face, that it has led to the believe that chilli is an aphrodisiac, a precursor to hot love. This part is wishful thinking.  


Yet sexual prowess is just one of many magical powers attributed to fiery peppers in folklore – chilli has been used in rituals, cures, and torture throughout the centuries. It’s also the most popular spice in the world and its health effects are remarkable. And nowhere is this truer than in Thailand where consumption is among the highest in the world. Of other Asian countries, chilli use may be higher in only the provinces of Hunan and Sichuan in China, and some parts of Indonesia. Thailand also has the second hottest type of pepper in the world (after the Mexican Habanero), called ‘prik kee noo’ in Thai. It’s not without reason that living in Thailand has given me a chilli addiction – now I consider non-spicy meals as bland and insatiable.  


Prik kee noo (meaning ‘mouse shit chillies’, due to the size and naughtiness) is as small as a pigeon’s droppings, but it packs an incredible punch whether it is used green or red. “It’s the type of chilli I prefer,” says Warita Mai-ngram, chef and co-owner of Krua Aroy Aroy, an excellent restaurant in Bangkok. “The red version is spicy and colourful but lacks aroma, while the green version has a fruity aroma. So, in Prik Nam Pla [chilli in fish sauce], I use red ones for colour and some green ones to improve taste and fragrance.”  


Warita, who’s been cooking professionally for 19 years, creates dishes that are finely balanced in spiciness and sweetness, including many coconut cream sauces, thus fooling the palate into believing that little chilli is present in the meal. The truth is something else – the restaurant uses 3-4kg of chilli daily to feed 200-250 people, and that’s at least 15 grams per meal. This figure is for all variety of peppers, including the little-used long cone-like green or red peppers that are only mildly spicy. (The true amount each person eats may actually be a little higher as, although there is a certain wastage of fresh chilli left-over in the plate, a lot of chilli is blended into the many manufactured chilli pastes and curry pastes that Warita spoons into many dishes).   


But it’s a different story for Vichit Mukura, chef of Sala Rim Naam, the restaurant of the Oriental Hotel where seventy percent of the customers are foreigners. The restaurant uses 1kg of chilli daily for 200 diners, which amounts to 5 grams per meal. “Foreigners can’t tolerate much chilli,” says Vichit, “so we have a different style of preparing food here. Many dishes we do are full of flavour but not spicy.” In yam salads and som tam, which are among the fieriest Thai dishes, Vichit puts two or three prik kee noos, much less than the five to ten that are dumped in traditional Thai restaurants. (Vichit, however, points out that he has seen foreigners slowly acquire a taste for hotter food in the two decades he’s worked as a chef.)    


So why have the Thais developed such a penchant for piquant food? Many outlandish hypotheses have been put forth, but I think the explanation is down to availability. Chilli grows naturally in tropical regions, making it readily available all year round. The plant itself is actually native to Bolivia and Brazil, and it was brought to Southeast Asia by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. It was then rapidly incorporated into Thai cuisine, and chef David Thompson, author of the book Thai Food, thinks the Thais took to chilli so whole-heartedly because of “a similar pre-existing flavour that was already popular, namely galangal and peppercorns, which when combined taste like chilli but with a somewhat drier heat.”    


It’s also an easy plant to grow. Farmers grow seedlings, and then transplant them into open fields. Plants start bearing fruit after two months, and each plant yields about 5kg of chilli over its year-long lifespan. “But it’s not a very profitable crop to grow,” says Thongsuk Unpim, a chilli farmer. “Last year’s price was 20 baht per kilo. When there is a glut in the market, I dry the chilli as the dried form sells at 60 baht per kilogram.”  


In the wild the plant grows for many years; the largest I have seen was an unkempt bush taller than a man. The seeds spread by a fantastic design of nature: birds do not feel the hotness in chilli, and they eat it avidly, excreting the seeds in their droppings. Birds that are voracious consumers in Thailand include sooty-headed bulbuls, white-rumped shamas, and common mynas – the latter is a black bird larger than a thrush with a yellowish band around its neck, commonly taken as a pet for its ability to mimic voices.  


“Thais believe that a bird that is fed chilli can learn how to speak,” recounts Siripong Thonogto, an ecologist who takes me around the province of Ban Rai to show me a rare variety of chilli that he believes is the hottest in the world. “And that is why the myna talks.” Strangely, this is one of the few myths featuring chilli in Thailand; a dearth of legends about such an ubiquitous spice seems strange given the Thais’ superstitious nature. The only ritual I came across in extensive research is the burning of salt and chilli to rid the house of evil spirits or curses. This extends to neutralising a malicious neighbour: salt and chilli is burned when the wind is wafting towards the offensive neighbour’s direction. This practice is commonest in the northeast, where people also believe that eating spicy food makes you stronger, and, by contrast, that people who can’t tolerate lots of chilli are uncourageous. The northeast is home of the som tam (papaya salad), one of the spiciest Thai dishes.  


Chilli is used in many forms in wider Thai cooking. Commonest is the fresh, chopped prik kee noos, followed by a different milder variety of pepper that is roasted or deep-fried. More chilli goes into the food in the form of pastes. There are dozens of pastes all made from similar ingredients – mostly chilli, tamarind, garlic, sugar, salt, dried shrimp or other fishes, fish sauce, and onions – whose quantities, and preparation, is altered to make different pastes, with a chilli content that ranges from three to twenty percent. It’s the same with curry pastes: all have chilli in varying quantities, and all are made from base ingredients of chilli, shallots, galangal, garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime, shrimp paste, and salt. “For a good curry paste it is essential to have good quality ingredients, including chilli,” says Preedawadee Laksanawisit, owner of Nittaya Thai Curry Products, producers of premium curry pastes. “The maturity of chilli is very important. Old chilli is soggy and immature chilli is bland. We have a lab at our factory where we test the ingredients for quality.”  


Further amounts of chilli are added to the food as condiments. Virtually all restaurant tables have jars with chilli in fish sauce, chilli in white vinegar, and dried ground chilli. There are also dedicated condiments: the fish dipping sauce (a puree of green chilli, lemon, lemongrass, fish sauce and salt), the sauce for grilled meats (dry ground chilli, lemon, fish sauce, roasted ground rice, and shallots), the sauce for spring rolls and patties (chilli, vinegar, and sugar), and the chilli fried in oil until it’s a dense and dark red paste. The latter is exceptionally pungent, and has a roasted flavour – it’s my favourite.   


Meanwhile, new ways of using peppers are being invented by foreign chefs in Bangkok that cook in Western restaurants in upscale hotels, and like to spike Western dishes with Asian spices. The most inventive of this type of fusion I have come across is a chilli chocolate cake at the Conrad Hotel. It’s mildly spicy, giving the cake an extra layer of taste. “We do it by putting chilli in coconut oil for two weeks and then melt the chocolate in the coconut oil,” explains Dietmer Spitzer, the pastry chef, “It’s one of our good-selling chocolate cakes.”  


© Victor Paul Borg. The above article was published in Fah Thai, the inflight magazine of Bangkok Airways.


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

more info....



 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

more info....



 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

more info....



 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

more info....