Addicted to Chilies

OK, I'll admit it – I've been adding chilies to my breakfast lately. My tolerance for spice seems to be getting higher the longer we're in Thailand and food seems to be missing something when there isn't any heat. Dare I say…boring? When we're in the States, I eat Thai (or at least Thai-style) food at least once a week (shout out to my former coworkers/lunch buddies at Six Apart!), and have been dying to know what makes it so addictive. Beyond the chilies.

When I think of Tom Yum soup, or any of the curries, or Pad Thai, the fiery spiciness is always mellowed by a sweetness. And the sweet is never too clingy because there's a sour-fishy-pungent-ness that follows. At least if you go to a good Thai place that gets the balance right. To find out what makes Thai food tick, we joined a vegetarian cooking course at Yousabi, which is now part of Pun Pun farm (which I've written about here). Krid, our awesome teacher for the course, led us through eleven dishes in two days. As we made our way through the dishes I kept adding more and more chilies – MOAR  SPIZE PLZ!

The basic pantry of the Thai kitchen is very straightforward: palm oil, palm sugar, fish sauce (although we used soy sauce as a substitute during the course because it was vegetarian), and coconut milk. Palm oil gets a bad reputation but is actually a really good oil to cook with because it has a high smoke temperature and has a neutral flavor. This also makes it ideal for frying. Palm sugar is an ingredient that I've never encountered before, but it was in almost every dish we made – and I think it made a big difference in melding all the flavors together and what's been missing in my former attempts to make Thai food at home. Fish sauce is used instead of using straight salt and gives the food that pungent flavor. Coconut milk provides the sweetness that balances out the heat.

Key herbs and spices include chilies, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and galangal. If you can't find all of these fresh then you're shit out of luck for making fresh curry paste. We also made use of tamarind juice and lime juice to add sour notes. Other handy ingredients include kaffir lime/kaffir lime leaves/kaffir lime peel, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and black soy sauce. The most time consuming part was making the curry paste. I definitely wouldn't skimp on that part, it makes a huge difference in flavor when you make it yourself – and of course with a mortar and pestle, food processors don't really allow the ingredients to release all of the flavor.

Then pretty much it's the combination of the basic ingredients, either as a curry or a stir fry or as a soup, with tofu and veggies in a wok, either with rice or noodles, and you've got homemade Thai food. It seemed amazingly simple and I wondered why I've never done it before. Pad Thai is a breeze! Green papaya salad, no problem! Even making soup was quick because we weren't laboriously making stock, we were just boiling a lot of the herbs together to make a light broth. Once you've got the ingredients prepped, the actual cooking part happens very quickly. Thai food seems to be about using cooking heat to release the maximum amount of flavor and color in a short amount of time.

Here's the recipe for Penang Curry, my favorite dish we made. Amounts can be adjusted to your liking, don't be afraid to eyeball it.

For the paste:

  • dried red chiles, soaked for a bit and then minced
  • lemongrass stems, chopped
  • large chunk of galangal, sliced
  • shallots
  • garlic

Combine these ingredients in a heavy stone mortar and pestle. Mash until it's almost smooth. Then add

  • 1 tsp. Coriander seed
  • 1 tsp. Cumin seed

Preferably these have been dry roasted beforehand. Continue pounding the mixture until is is a paste.

For one serving:

  • 1 ½ tsp palm oil
  • long beans
  • eggplant
  • tofu
  • ¾ cup coconut milk
  • 1 tsp palm sugar
  • ½ tsp fish sauce (or dark soy sauce)
  • roasted peanuts, crushed
  • slices of fresh red pepper and kaffir lime leaf for garnish

Add palm oil in a wok over low heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add at least a heaping tbsp of curry paste, or to taste. Fry the paste for a bit. Just before it starts browning, add 2 tbsp of coconut milk. Continue to fry the paste until the oil from the coconut milk begins to separate from the paste. Add vegetables to the wok (long beans, eggplant, tofu). Add the rest of the coconut milk.

Now add the palm sugar and fish sauce, stir to combine. Add a bit of water if it's too dry. Turn the heat up and cook until the vegetables are cooked but firm/crisp. Add the crushed peanuts. Garnish with the red pepper and kaffir lime leaves, serve accompanied with rice.


I will be hitting up the Thai grocer on Bayard St. when I get home, that's for sure.  I  really have no excuse for being lazy and not cooking at home and going out for cheap Thai food, because now I can make it exactly how I like with as many chilies as I like. Anyone ready to come over for dinner?



4 thoughts on “Addicted to Chilies

  1. Anonymous says:

    Why don’t we blog about Thai food more often? It’s 10:01AM EST and I’m ready for a bowl of green curry.I am coming over for dinner at your earliest convenience.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I see, you can take the chef out of the kitchen, but you cannot take the kitchen out of the chef! Brilliant stuff guys! keep the words flow going! can’t wait for your visit. I already have very eager Koreans ready to give you a gastronomic tour.

  3. Anonymous says:

    We will have to cook a bunch of stuff when you get here to Germany. I add a lot of chiles to everything, though it’s probably not spicy in comparison to what you’re eating there (eh hem, Germans are not used to spiciness). I may try that recipe at some point, though it will be SUPER HARD to come by some of those ingredients here. Maybe the Chinese grocery store??

  4. Julie Lee says:

    You know how much I like chilies ; can’t wait for you both to come home and make me some me yummy and spicy!!

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