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Crisp and Fiery - Chiles

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
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If you were to sum up a cuisine in one word, “hot” could be one of those used for many Asian cuisines. Before the introduction of chile (Capsicum frutescens) to Asian food, much of the heat found in dishes came from white pepper and spices such as ginger, galangal, and garlic. In Thai cooking, if you come across a recipe that is made with white pepper, it is often an old Siamese recipe predating the arrival of chiles in the cuisine.

There is more vitamin C in chiles than in oranges, and they are also addictive. The heat from the chile forces the body to release endorphins to deal with it, thus making you feel good. The more chiles you eat, the more your tolerance for the heat they provide increases, and so your body needs a hotter dose.

Abundant variety

There are many varieties of chile used across Asia—fresh and dried, large and small, red and green. All these chiles have unique tastes, so it is important to try to match the right ones to the dishes that you are going to make. The heat in a chile comes from the seeds and the central core of white pith. The smaller the chile, the hotter it is—bird’s-eye chiles are an example of this. Large finger-length red (ripe) and green (unripe) chiles are usually moderately hot. Another important factor is that the hotter the climate where the chiles are grown, the riper and therefore the hotter the chiles will be.

In India, chiles are mostly used fresh in their green unripe state, but they are still fiery hot. If you make a green masala paste or a curry from South India using fresh green chiles, it is likely to be very spicy. Most of the ripe red chiles that are grown are dried, with much of them being ground into chile powder.

As you head further south throughout tropical Asia, the temperature increases—as does the spiciness of the food. This is true in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to name but a few. You eat hot food to make you sweat, which in turn cools you down. Also, there is a bounty of sweet fruit and nuts such as coconut, papaya, mango, and watermelon in the tropics, and these are used to temper other ingredients that are too hot. Sugar lessens the acidity that is found in chiles.

“The heat in a chile comes from the seeds and the central core of white pith. The smaller the chile, the hotter it is. Large finger-length red (ripe) and green (unripe) chiles are usually moderately hot.”

Different approaches

In Thailand, the main chiles (prik) that are used are the finger-length varieties and also the tiny but fiery hot bird’s-eye chile, which can be red, orange, yellow, or green. A Thai condiment present on every communal table is nam pla, a simple concoction of sliced small chiles that is known as prik khii nuu (which translates alarmingly as “mouse-dropping chiles”), floating in nam pla (Thai fish sauce). To make a dipping sauce for seafood, minced garlic, lime juice, and a little sugar are added—this is called nam jim. Similar condiments are used in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Chiles can be pickled or preserved, or dry-roasted to impart a distinct smoky taste. Unripe green chiles have a sharp heat and a slightly acidic taste. To lessen the heat of dried chiles, but without reducing flavor, cut them open and remove the seeds, then soak the dried skins in boiling water for about 20 minutes before using. Always wash your hands well after handling chiles, before touching eyes, lips, and other sensitive areas. Being scrupulous about washing your hands will ensure that you don’t unintentionally suffer the sting of chile.


Throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, the sambal rules the table. This fiery chile paste is served as a condiment and can be eaten on the side or spread on particular ingredients . There are as many sambals, and as many techniques for making them, as there are cooks who use them. Some sambals call for fresh red chiles, while others use dried. A couple use green chiles. Some are raw; others are fried. At the simplest end of the scale is sambal oelek, a combination of chiles, salt, and vinegar. It can be bought in jars and is a good base to start with. Shallots, garlic, galangal, and balacan (shrimp paste) can be added, as well as tamarind pulp and spices. Sambal ikan bilis is made with dried anchovies, while sambal balacan is a blend of chiles and shrimp paste.

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