Pepper vines in a plantation near Kampot
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.
Pepper vines in a plantation near Kampot
Limes are available in great abundance all year round, and are used in a number of dishes to provide sourness, which is one of the four basic tastes that every dish attempts to balance (the other three tastes are spicy, salty and sweet.) Some people translate the Thai word manao as "lemon" but since the skin of the Thai citrus fruit is mostly dark green, I prefer to call them limes. Thai limes are almost perfectly round in shape, rather than oblong like a lemon. The skin is quite thin, making it hard to zest.
A large basket of dark green leaves is probably the most unusual thing you might see at the curry spice stall. These are the leaves (bai ma-groot) of the kaffir lime tree. The leaves give off a strong lime aroma, and are an important ingredient in many Thai soups and curries, not to mention one of Chiang Mai's most famous foods, the spicy sausage called sai ooa. The leaves not only give their citrus taste to any dish, they also lend their strong fragrance.
Cucumbers appear in many Thai recipes, and on the sides of many other dishes. The reason, in part, is due to the cucumber's admirable ability to sooth the sting of hot chillies. As every Thai knows, if you get a bit too much chili on your tongue, nothing will take away the heat faster than a slice of cucumber, although I should probably note that alcohol is also a well known 'cure'.
Onions can and are used in just about any dish for the Thai table. You can never be sure where they'll show up. Thai onions are rather sweet compared to most other kinds around the world. This leaves it up to the garlic and other spices to add zest to a dish. One of the curious things about onions in Thai cuisine is that they are the one vegetable that is prohibited during the annual vegetarian festival observed among members many of Thailand's Chinese community. True observants of the festival must abstain from the consumption of all types of onions, including shallots and garlic.
Chili peppers may get all the attention, with their bright colors and flaming spiciness, but in my view the coriander plant is the real workhorse of Thai cuisine. Known as pak chee to the Thais, every part of the plant is used in Thai cooking. The green leaves of fresh coriander are often chopped up and sprinkled over soups and stir-fries, but they're more than just a garnish. Fresh coriander lends a very specific flavor to many dishes that wouldn't taste the same without it.
One of my favorite Indonesian side dishes is corn cakes. They come in a lot of different types, since it seems almost every regional cuisine has some kind of them. I found this recipe in a small book of Indonesian favorites. It calls for peanuts, which I'm not sure I've had before. If you're allergic, just leave them out.
I first encountered dabu-dabu on a trip around North Sulawesi, where it's the local sambal (the generic Indonesian word for chili sauce). Although almost certainly developed locally, dabu-dabu is definitely a dead ringer for Mexican salsa. It went very well with another Indonesian favorite: corn cakes.
Dubbed the "queen of fruits", the mangosteen is native to Malaysia and Indonesia, although it is now found throughout South-East Asia, where it is a favorite almost everywhere. The mangosteen is a small spherical fruit about the size of a tangerine, but with a skin that is very dark purple, and quite thick, reaching 10 millimeters in thickness. Inside is a soft white sectioned middle. The edible sections may or may not contain a small seed. The taste is quite sweet, but with a hint of sourness.
Tomatoes are yet another immigrant from the New World. They have been incorporated into Thai cuisine, but tomatoes - makeua tet in Thai - don't play nearly the same role they do in western cuisine. Tomatoes are often used just to add a bit of color to a dish, and rarely form the basis for a recipe as they do with Italian sauces.