In praise of the awesome Thai chili

Eating chili is like eating chocolate.

Nittaya is an hour away from her 6.02 am tee time at a golf tournament in a resort 90 minutes out of Bangkok. She has ordered khao tom, a Thai breakfast dish of rice porridge with shrimps and green onion accompanied with condiments of pickled ginger, pickled cabbage, crispy fried anchovies, and, and when it arrives, steam rising from it, she pours spoonful after spoonful of chopped fresh Thai chili on top of her porridge.

At my horrified look, she quips, “It helps me wake up in the morning.” She tastes the first spoonful of the spicy porridge and smiles. “I usually have one helping of chili in every meal.”

Thai cooking uses the Thai chili, a small sized variety belonging to the plant species Capsicum frutescens, to flavor its cuisine. The ubiquitous prik nam pla, a sauce made of fish sauce, chopped garlic, lime juice and chopped chili is present on every restaurant table and prepared in every home. Thais sprinkle this spicy flavoring over every meal from noodles to rice.

Thai chili with green red and orange varieties
The small ones are the most lethal.

Nittaya’s group has teed off, and we are at the par four third hole, waiting for our approach into an island green guarded by a kidney shaped bunker. Ignoring the water behind the green and the bunker, Nittaya takes a club and pulls on her golf gloves to get ready to make her approach. She is smiling. She is also sweating, and it’s only 7.00 am. I hand her my towel, and she laughs, “Yeah, chili makes you sweat. Good for you.”

Chili contains chemicals called capsaicinoids. When eaten, these chemicals dock at pain receptors in the mouth and throat, and that is why the person eating chili experiences a burning sensation. This burning sensation tells the brain to raise the heart rate, and the higher heart rate in turn causes sweating.

In the South of Thailand, where Nittaya comes from, dishes are considered spicier than they are in the Central area, where Bangkok sprawls. Southern Thailand experiences the monsoon rains later than the Central areas, and their prolonged hot season, where temperatures can rise above 110 F, may be one of the reasons why Southerners eat such spicy food—to cool down through the spice-induced sweat.

We are on the green of hole number three and see that Nittaya’s ball has fallen short of the green. She’s at the lip of the bunker, and has to hit her ball backward to avoid the penalty of hitting a shot that will bounce off the raised edge of the bunker and fall back into the sand trap. She succeeds in getting the ball onto the green after the extra shot. She crouches behind her ball and marks it with a five Baht coin, carefully slipping the coin under the white orb, then lifts the ball and cleans it while eyeing the path her ball will take to fall into the hole, about 20 feet away.

Her decision made, she takes the putter from her caddy and sets up for the putt. She barely taps it, and the ball rolls off the intended path, falls short. Nittaya doesn’t say anything; she’s biting her lip as she sets up for another putt. Again the ball is short. She sets up once more, and this time, the ball rolls into the hole, and we hear the sound most golfers love—of the golf ball rattling in the plastic before it grows still.

“Yes!” Nittaya pumps her fist like a true golfer. Her caddy announces, “Eight,” her score for the hole, before taking the putter from Nittaya’s hands and replacing the flag. As we walk off the green, Nittaya looks around and says, “I love this hole. The design is beautiful.” She’s smiling. She takes the scorecard from her back pocket and writes her score. “Had to take my medicine,” she says, still smiling, mentioning what golfers call the decisions they have to make even though it costs them extra strokes.  Then she adds, “Feels good.”

When chili’s capsaicinoids dock at the pain receptors in the mouth and throat, the brain also releases endorphins, a compound produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland which is considered a natural pain killer. Endorphins are released in the brain when a person is in pain, during exercise, when eating spicy food, and during orgasm. Endorphins are the human body’s feel good drug.

Plums and chilis, Vietnam.

It’s no wonder then that just about all the foods in Thailand are eaten with the chili, except with very few exceptions. Is it addictive? Probably in the same way that exercise is—because of the rush that comes with the wave of endorphins that the brain releases. This rush is most likely why, when I travel somewhere like Australia or the US, I miss Thai food, and as soon as I get back, my traditional first meal after landing at Suvarnabhumi Bangkok International Airport is invariably a spicy Thai soup, tom yam, with an extra helping of chili. It’s a welcome home with a lot of oomph.

Because Thais eat so much chili, people generally have opinions about the ways it is used in cooking. “Thai food is all about balance,” a restaurant chef says when I visit him at his home’s kitchen. “We have to include all tastes in the food or the meal—sweet, salty, spicy, sour. Only bitter is optional. Some people cook and chili is too much. You cannot taste anything else.” He shakes his head and turns back to the wok and his work.

When he finishes the stir-fried noodle with kale in soy sauce, he slides some onto three different plates. On one, he doesn’t put in any chili. On the second one, he sprinkles some chili on top, and on the last dish he pours in a very generous amount of the dried chili powder that Thais use in their noodle dishes. “Taste,” he tells me, and crosses his arms, a small smile on his face.

I start with the no-chili dish. The noodles are slightly oily, the kale is slightly bitter, but the oil is all I can taste. I shake my head a little, and the chef nods. He points to the dish in the middle, the one he has dusted with chili powder. I take the spoon and fork and mix the chili into the noodles, then feed myself a spoonful. The chili and soy sauce skim over the textures of crispy kale and slippery flat rice noodle. I want to have more of it, but he is now pointing at the third dish, so reluctantly I turn to it and mentally tell myself to ask him if I could have the second dish for lunch.

The third dish is terrible. As I take a spoonful it, the chili powder is overpowering, and although my veteran chili eating mouth can take the spiciness, it is not tasty because there is no other taste other than the chili. Taste test over, and his point made, my friend the chef smiles as he hands me the plate of the really well made phad see yoo, flat noodles in soy sauce with kale, with just the right amount of chili.

The right amount of chili, though, can vary from region to region of Thailand. For the same reasons as the South—its cooling effect—Northeastern people serve their food with chopped chili, using both fresh and dried Thai chili to produce the taste of Isaan food. The Northeast often experiences drought, a prolonged hot season, and eating spicy food cools them down just like it does in the curries of Southern Thailand. But what is the right amount of chili? Some Bangkok residents might say the whispery burning sensation in your nose from a sprinkling of chili sauce might do the trick.

Chilis for sale at the market in Luang Prabang.

A Thai friend I met up with in Paris recently shared a baguette and some pate with me for lunch. While we ate, she popped jalapenos into her mouth along with each bite of baguette. “Tastes better with this,” she says. She finished a quarter of the pint-sized jar along with her 12 inch baguette. Later, when she ate some noodles we made in her niece’s kitchen in Nieullly-sur-Seine, I watched her crush three Thai chili peppers into the noodle. Was that enough?

I could cop out of answering this question, except I remember one trip I took to Koh Samui, an island off the southern province of Surat Thani, and my friend Nittaya’s hometown. My golf buddy Ek had been going out with Nittaya for a couple years and the three of us decided to fly to the island to spend some time with her family and play some golf at the challenging Santiburi Samui Country Club. Because the 260-resort island is popular with the whole range of luxury to backpacker tourist groups, food stalls were everywhere and it was very easy just to eat off the street.

Nittaya led us to a noodle stall near Chaweng Beach, crowded with locals, where we had to wait fifteen minutes before the three of us could get seats. When a table had left, paying the 40 Baht for each dish, and wiping dripping sweat off their faces with toilet paper from the roll on each table, we sat down for some khanom cheen nam ya, a Southern dish of rice noodles with a spicy fish based sauce.

It was only my second time eating khanom cheen, so I watched the Southerner Nittaya as she spooned chopped raw long bean, bean sprouts and chopped cabbage into her bowl. I did the same. Then she mixed the vegetables in with the sauce and noodles; I mimicked her. When she spooned a heaping bite of her dish into her mouth, I confidently did, too. And what I felt I have never forgotten.

The fire began all of a sudden, spreading quickly in my whole mouth. I felt my face burn red; sweat began to form on my forehead; my eyes threatened tears. I let go the spoon and flapped both hands in front of my mouth. I swallowed painfully, opened my mouth, and puffed air out in a bid to put the fire out. I drank a glass of Coke. And the fire subsided. By this time, Nittaya and Ek were smiling, a Thai reaction (even when they feel sorry for you).

When I could speak, I pointed at the khanom cheen and said, “Spicy.” I believe this is the standard foreigner’s first time response to tasting most Thai food. Nittaya grinned. She said, “It’s not spicy until you cry.”


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