The small mouse dropping chilies are what really make Thai food fiery hot, buts it's often the much larger and more visible spur chilies that get the blame. Spur chilies are usually around five centimeters (two inches) long, and can be found in red, green and even orange colors.
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.
Although you may not always see them, dried chilies are found in a large proportion of Thai recipes, especially in the north. Drying is a traditional way of preserving foods in Thailand that goes way back into the pre-history of the region. Drying is the best way to preserve foods in the humid air of the tropics. It was only natural that the technique was applied to chilies when they were introduced in the 17th century.
Mussaman curry is probably the most 'un-Thai' style of Thai curries. It's more like a stew than other Thai curries. The word mussaman has no meaning in Thai, other than as the name of this curry. It may be, like several words in the modern Thai language, a corruption of a foreign word, probably Persian if the stories around this recipe are to be believed. The legend of the dish's origin is that it is derived from a recipe bought by the first Persian ambassador to the Court of Ayutthaya (the capital of old Siam).
Green curry is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all Thai curries. You'll find it on the menu in practically every restaurant in the kingdom, and it makes a frequent appearance at the curry stalls. Although the dish has its origins in the central plains, it's found and appreciated throughout the country. Much of the attraction of green curry is its flexibility. It works well not only with rice, but is also quite popular as a topping for the spaghetti like rice noodles called khanom jeen. It has also proved quite popular for adding a Thai twist to Italian pastas.
Eggplants are very important in many Thai dishes, although you could say their role is more of a "supporting" character. Eggplants are thought to have originated in South-east Asia, and you can still find a seemingly infinite variety of eggplants in Thai markets. Eggplants apparently made their way to India by ancient trade routes, and from there to the Mediterranean.
This is one of those "standard" dishes you'll find in almost every Thai restaurant. When ordering ala-carte dishes, Thais will normally include one or two vegetable dishes, and this mixed vegetable recipe is the easiest choice; one all guests can agree on.
You can, of course, vary this dish to use whatever you have on hand. It's one of those recipes that you rarely make exactly the same way twice. To make it truly vegetarian, use mushroom sauce in place of oyster sauce.
Although pad Thai is well known to tourists, and so expected on the menu at every Thai restaurant in the west, the dish is actually not all that common in Thailand. You will find stalls that sell it and Thais do enjoy pad Thai once in a while, but the dish is not nearly as common as many westerners think. It is very much a street food, and perhaps a good example of a strange sort of snobbishness about food. Some things, it seems, just belong on the streets, and are almost never found in restaurants.
Starting in November here in Thailand, the thick brown seed pods of the tamarind tree will begin to appear in the markets. The initial stock usually comes from Petchabun, a province just a few hours' drive south of Chiang Mai, at the edge between northern and central Thailand. These will be packed in bags or even 'gift' boxes. As the season progresses, the many orchards further north around Chiang Mai will ripen and make their way to the markets.
Potatoes on sale in the "hill tribe" market in Chiang Mai.
Carrots were a rather rare sight when I first came to Thailand many years ago. There were usually just a few slices thrown into mixed vegetable stir-fries for color. Over the years, it seems that they have become more common, and that's probably due to them becoming more readily available. The increasing availability is no doubt due to the efforts of His Majesty the King of Thailand, through his Royal Projects foundation. This point was driven home when we encountered a group of Meo villagers washing huge mounds of freshly harvested carrots on the side of a mountain road one day.