The Heat of the Thai Kitchen
Thai Chiles and Pepper:
Pepper: phrik thai or prik tai
Pepper comes from several species of a vining tropical plant ( Piper nigrum ), the spice being the fruit, called peppercorns. The plants are grown primarily in the warmer tropical zones of Thailand , and are cultivated on vertical poles, forming a living column of pepper vine which can be as high as 7 to 8 feet, and as wide as 3 to 4 feet. The harvest is at the end of the hot season, meaning late spring to early summer. Black pepper is the dried, unripe berry, consisting of the wrinkled fruit and the seed within. White pepper starts out the same as the black, but is allowed to ripen more fully on the vine. The outer shell (the fruit) is then removed by soaking the berries in water until it falls off, or they are held under flowing spring water, which yields a whiter, cleaner, more superior white peppercorn; white peppercorn is the seed only. Thai white peppercorns are spicier than those found in the West. Green pepper is from the same fruit, but it is harvested before they mature; sold fresh at market, frozen fresh, or pickled in brine (canned or bottled). Pink pepper is made from the ripe, red peppercorns, which are preserved in a manner to retain their color.
Pink peppercorn , Schinus terebinthifolius , which is a berry from a small mastic tree related to cashews, sometimes called Baies Rose. It comes from the French island of Reunión off of the African coast and Brazil (and is now naturalized in Florida ). Pink peppercorns have a brittle, papery pink skin enclosing a hard, irregular seed, much smaller than the whole fruit, with a peppery-sweet flavor.) It is generally not used in Thailand , and is included here simply because it is normally grouped-in with the forms of true pepper.
Black phrik thai Piper nigrum
Long pepper dee plee Piper retrofractum ( Piper longum is the variety from India )
This spice comes from a flowering vine which resembles the true pepper vine. The spice comes from tiny berries the size of poppy seeds, which merge to form a single, rod-like structure (a catkin); it is actually the dried inflorescence of this species. The flavor is hot and warm, perhaps a little spicier than black pepper, with sweet overtones. Although it fell out of popularity with the introduction of chile peppers, it is still used in Thailand , as well as the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia , and Malaysia .
Sichuan peppercorns ma lar , mak kak Zanthoxylum alatum , Z. piperitum
The knobby, pinkish-gray seed husks of a type of prickly ash tree, which is used to add a unique spiciness to the dishes of Sichuan , China . They have a woodsy, citrusy, aromnatic, slightly spicy flavor which produces a distinct numbness on the tongue and in the mouth. Two different types are used in Thailand , primarily in Chinese dishes.
There are ten main types of chiles that are commonly used (seven are listed here), and they have a tendency to interbreed freely and naturalize in the wild, making positive identification difficult as natural hybrids emerge. Birds are the main vector for naturalization, and birds have imported varieties from the Indian subcontinent, China , and surrounding countries in Southeast Asia and Indonesia through the years as they fly along migratory routes or migrate beyond their established biozones.
When making chiles in vinegar ( nahm sam phrik ) as a condiment for the table, when Thai sky-pointing or banana stalk chiles are not available, use Serrano chiles as a substitute: Jalapeños will not retain their crispness in vinegar nearly as well as Serranos.
Chilies: Prik or Phrik
‘Mouse dropping' prik khii nuu Capsicum frutescens minimum
‘Farm' mouse dropping prik khii nuu suan
‘Dragon's eye' mouse dropping prik khii nuu sun yaew
The mouse dropping family of chiles gets its name from their resemblance to mouse feces when the chiles are dried, although some claim that they are hot enough to make a mouse collapse should the rodent eat one. They are the hottest chiles used in Thailand , and generally they are used fresh. Some cooks grind them in a mortar and pestle to add overall heat to a dish, while some cooks will leave these chiles whole or in large segments in a dish, so that they can be easily removed by the diner.
‘Sky pointing' prik chii faa Capsicum annuum acuminatum
Red Thai ‘jalapeños' prik chii faa daeng
‘Banana stalk' chile prik yuak
Orange chile prik daeng
Long red chile prik yai haeng
Yellow chile prik leuang
Green pepper prik kiao
Sweet bell pepper prik waan, prik yak, prik yuat Capsicum annuum var. grossum
Red bell pepper prik yuat daeng
Fresh chile prik sot
Dried chile prik haeng
Spiciness, or pungency, isn't really a taste, but scientifically, is actually a chemical irritation of the trigeminal mouth nerves caused by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chiles. It's similar to the subtle irritation caused by piperine in pepper, gingerol in ginger and its relatives, and isothiocyanates in garlic, shallots, and onions; minor irritants which trigger the production of endorphins in the brain, and endorphins produce a sense of well-being. All of these ingredients, by the way, are aromatics and seasonings used heavily in Thai cooking. In short, Thai food makes you, and your brain, very happy and content.