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.
These little wrapped meatballs are quite a popular afternoon snack. They would make quite a good appetizer, or finger food for a party. Stalls will specialize in this and nothing else. As with noodle stalls that get a reputation, people will drive a long distance just to get to a good dumpling stall.
Freshly steamed dumplings still in the steamer
Sausages are a common form of preparing and curing meats throughout Thailand. Each region has its own variations and specialities. In addition to a raw cured sausage called naem, the north, and specifically Chiang Mai, is also famous for a cooked sausage called sai ooa made with lemongrass and kaffir lime.
Chiang Mai's sai ooa sausages hot from the oven.
Shredded carrot most closely matches the texture, if not the colour or flavour, of green papaya. This recipe is similar to one that has proved successful at the restaurant chain in Thailand where I used to work, and also utilizes ingredients easily found outside of the country. You can of course substitute fresh string beans for the long beans.
If there's such a thing as a single national dish for Thailand, it wouldn't be the Tom Yum soup widely known among western visitors and Thai food aficionados. It would almost certainly be the sweet, hot and sour salad made with green papaya. Such is the popularity of this dish that entire television shows, songs and books have been devoted to it.
Don't let the relative simplicity of the ingredients fool you, with the full compliment of fresh ingredients, this curry can be surprisingly complex. That said, finding fresh kaffir lime leaves and sprigs of green peppercorns is probably the biggest challenge you'll face in making this dish, and it really won't taste the same without them.
Pork Red Curry
A popular snack from afternoon to evening is any of a variety of barbecued meats. These meats are usually skewered on to bamboo sticks and grilled over hot coals. Perhaps one of the best known barbecues is the Thai adaptation of satay, a dish found throughout South-East Asia. You may encounter carts selling satay or other barbecues on the street any time from late afternoon on to late night. Carts are often quite mobile, and move around with the crowds. Often, they are built starting with a motorcycle, with the front replaced by a push-cart.
Thai steamed buns are closely related to their Chinese origins. The main difference is the variety of fillings to be found in Thailand. Sala pao have become an increasingly popular snack in recent years, thanks no doubt to their wide availability in the local branches of a large international convenience store chain. You can still find 'authentic' steamed buns in many markets, especially in Chinese districts.
Grilled meats with lemongrass are rather less common on the street than a similar looking dish using only garlic and pepper. Still, the lemongrass adds a special flavour that makes this recipe a bit more interesting than what you will normally find. This recipe works well with pork or chicken, and could also be used with beef.
Papaya, or malagaw in Thai, is another imported fruit that has found a key place in Thai cuisine. The tree was first described by a Spanish chronicler name Oviedo in 1526 as found along the coasts of present day Panama and Columbia. The abundant seeds of the fruit are viable for up to three years, which allowed the fruit to be easily spread throughout the tropics. By the end of the sixteenth century the Spanish and Portuguese had spread the papaya to their colonies in India, Malacca and the Philippines.
When wandering through one of the suburban weekend markets on the outskirts of Chiang Mai one day, I came across more than one vendor selling fermented fish (pla rah). I had heard about this concoction for many years, but had never seen it. This 'ancestor' of the commonly used fish sauce is not for the feint of heart. David Thompson calls it “an evil thing, leering out from its murky distant past.”