Thais have found an amazing number of uses for the leaves (bai) of the pandan plant (toei hawm). The plant is a small shrub whose leaves look like jumbo sized blades of grass. The long slender dark green leaves extend about 80 centimeters from the central root stalk. The leaves contain a highly fragrant oil, and are used to flavor rice and sweets. The leaves are also used to wrap meats such as chicken, which is then barbecued or steamed. The process infuses the meat with the buttery sweet taste and aroma of the leaves.
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.
Like the chillies that are now a fundamental part of Thai cuisine, pineapples originated in the New World and were bought to Asia by the Europeans. The fruit is now a part of the everyday landscape of Thailand. No fruit cart can ply the streets without having its bins stocked with pineapple.
Thai Basil on sale in a fresh market.
One of Vietnam's own home-grown coffee shops.
Coffee on sale in a Rantepao market.
Thai golden pumpkins (fak tong) are perhaps more 'natural' than their North American cousins. As with many other fruits and vegetables, looks are not considered as important as taste for Thais. Although the fruit is thought to have originated in North America, Thai pumpkins are not like the unblemished clear skinned orange squash used to make Jack-o-Lanterns. They're usually either green or even gray in color, with occasional orange blotches and quite bumpy skin. They're also generally smaller than the huge ones often favored by the yanks. It's just as well.
I don't think I'm unique in being bought up to think of corn as a vegetable. It wasn't until I moved to Thailand that I found out corn was really a dessert! Fully ripe sweet yellow corn is almost exclusively found in desserts and other sweets, as well as steamed or roasted fresh corn. On the broad plaza in front of Chiang Mai's reconstructed eastern Tapae Gate, an old lady sells roasted sweet corn. She's there most days, unless there's an event using the plaza, from late afternoon into the evening. The corn is roasted over warm coals.
As a seemingly obvious "Chinese" import, cashew chicken often gets dismissed as not really a "Thai" dish, but it definitely helps to balance out a meal that already has many spicy dishes. Although they make the dish look spicy, the dried chillies usually don't impart much heat to the rest of the ingredients. In Thailand, this dish is almost always mild, with little or no spiciness. Since they can be a bit tough, most people just push the chillies to the side of their plate and don't eat them.
This is a spicy Thai 'salad' that is served as part of the main meal. You can adjust the chili to suit your taste. You might be able to use grapefruit in place of pomelo, but you will probably want to increase the sugar and decrease the lime juice to counteract the tarter taste of grapefruit.