Galangal is one of the cornerstones of Thai cuisine. Few other regional foods use this fragrant tuber more than Thailand. Galangal is a close relative of ginger. Like it, galangal is the tuberous root of a flowering plant that grows on the forest floor. When mature, galangal plants produce a pale green orchid-like flower that is also edible, although I've never seen it in the markets or used in everyday recipes.
Ever think about where the food on your table really comes from? Maybe not, but it is sometimes a very interesting story. The fact is that a lot of plants don't originate in the places that are most associated with them. I discovered this when researching a book about Thai food a few years ago (sadly, it was never published). I found out that, although the chili pepper is widely associated with Thai cuisine, the chili plant is not native to Thailand, or even Asia. That discovery, along with the ones that followed, form the basis of this web site.
“Traveling Chili” is the story of the journeys plants have taken around the world, to end up at our supermarkets and on our tables. The facts are sometimes stranger than fiction, and there are even one or two radical make-overs along the way. This site also shares some of the local knowledge I've gained about how some foods are used, and I might even share a recipe or two.
The most recent articles published to the site are listed below.
Mushrooms - hed - are a common ingredient in quite a number of Thai dishes, and quite a few different varieties of the fungus are used. Perhaps the most commonly used are cloud ear mushrooms, which appear in a number of stir-fries. Also called wood ears or tree ears, the Thai name for them is hed hoo noo, which means "mouse ear mushroom". The Thai name is a good description of these thin wrinkly brown fungi. Like all mushrooms, cloud ears have an earthy taste, although it is not very strong in this variety.
Shallots are another fundamental spice in Thai cooking. They are equal to, or perhaps even more important than garlic. Shallots are something of a cross between onions and garlic. Thai shallots are sweet, yet still have the punch of garlic to them. They're also red in color, which explains why the direct translation of the Thai name hom daeng is "red onion." Like onions, they have concentric layers, although usually only three or four.
In my childhood, growing up in the American Pacific Northwest, watermelon was a summertime treat; something enjoyed during weekend barbecues when one or more of my mother's numerous brothers and sisters would come to town with their own sometimes large families. A large melon would be the simple dessert to a picnic styled meal.
The Thai name for this fruit is chompoo, and I've seen any number of English names for it, such as water apple or Malay apple, but I've decided to call it "rose apple". The rose apple is yet another fruit with a surprise up its sleeve. Based on its outward appearance, it could easily be mistaken for a small pear, although the skin is usually quite waxy compared to pears. But when you cut the rose apple open, you won't find a core filled with seeds. The core of a rose apple is more or less hollow, with a bit of cottony fluff that should be scraped out and discarded.
Is there any spice more universal than garlic? It's certainly as fundamental to Thai cuisine as the chilli pepper, if not more so. There are few dishes indeed that don't call for a little garlic, if not a lot. Food stall owners will typically buy garlic in large bunches that look perfect for protecting your house from vampires, but seem a bit much for cooking. The large quantity is due to Thai garlic's milder taste. It takes a lot of garlic to give recipes the strong taste Thais expect.
This has to be one of the desserts many people identify most with Thailand, at least if the visit at a certain time of year, when mangoes are in season. It's quite a filling dish; one worth of being shared with a friend. It can also be quite sleep-inducing!
Mangoes and Sticky Rice
The spicy minced meat salad known as larb is found in many different styles all over Thailand. Variations abound, as the dish can be prepared with just about any kind of meat, including duck, chicken, catfish, prawn, beef, and on and on. Sometimes referred to as Thailand's own version of steak tartar, the meat is almost always served cooked, although there are some regional variations that serve it almost raw. Unlike most contemporary Thai dishes, larb was traditionally made some hours in advance of when it would be consumed.
The mint plant's more than 25 varieties probably originated in Asia but today are found all around the world, and have been used by man since pre-historic times. The common Thai variety is a strain of peppermint and has bright green wrinkly leaves. Mint is used in many traditional dishes from the North and North-east of Thailand. Curiously, mint is only ever found in savory dishes. I've never encountered any sweets made with mint, nor do Thais have a taste for mint tea, which is otherwise popular in many other parts of the world.
Mangoes are perhaps one of the most popular fruits among Thais. They are available in a stunning variety in Thailand, from the sweet yellow mangoes commonly found in the west, to tart green mangoes that find their way into many Thai dishes, both sweet and savory.