Bird’s eye chili peppers

Thai food recipes with Chilies – Bird’s eye chili pepper

Studded with small green peppercorns that burst with a mild peppery pungency, this relish is not as spicy as one might expect from a Thai chili relish - nor does the sour taste serve as a noticeable flavor pillar. Instead, a warmer and softer peppery bite, coupled with the aroma of young pepper, delivers a complex kick. The peppercorns, together with the flavorful yellow chilies, wrap the pork’s natural umami and fatty characters and enhance its natural sweetness; this sweetness, despite being placed far in the back and only appearing at the end of each bite, is nicely layered by the use of shrimp meat and palm sugar.

Fish fermentation consists of a simple salt-curing process: mixing or coating a whole fish, sliced fish or minced fish meat with salt and rice husks (or ground roasted rice). The mixture is then allowed to rest and ferment for few months. This fermentation process creates deep, intense umami flavor agents accompanied by a strong stench. It is only with culinary sagacity and skill that cooks are able to harness and direct these powerful flavors within the context of an appetizing dish, and to constrain the odor to an agreeable intensity.

Green curry, with its mellow, creamy green color and rich coconut base, has both fresh and mature flavors. Like new growth on plants, it brings brightness, youthfulness, spring and rebirth to the meltdown of flavors created in the curry paste.

The green curry paste uses mainly the same standard ingredients as Thai spicy-red curry paste: lemongrass, coriander roots, kaffir lime zest, galangal, garlic, shallots, white peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, salt and kapi.

This eel curry includes a greater-than-usual quantity of aromatics used over three stages. First, the eel is cleaned and sliced into segments; then it is fried with a generous amount of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and shallots. These help to counter its muddy and somewhat iron-like odor, which disappears along with the liquids and the aromatics.

This eel curry recipe is adapted from the vintage book: “Gap Khaao O:H Chaa Roht” by Ging Ga Nohk) (กับข้าวโอชารส โดย กิ่งกนก – กาญจนาภา พ.ศ. 2485). This rare book was written in 1942 during WWII, a period of global turmoil in which Thailand was invaded by the Japanese. That same year marked a decade from the ending of absolute monarchy rule in 1932, and one generation away from the peak of the Siamese culinary renaissance that flourished in the court of King Rama V (1868-1910): a nostalgic era for its children who are still with us to remember and reflect on those times.

If we could strip away the spices, the seasonings, the vegetables and the herbs from savory dishes we could uncover their naked flavor profile core. There, we would encounter a strong savory-umami, sometimes coupled with other basic elements of smoke and fat. This flavor core is, for us humans, the sought-after taste of protein; our first sip of mother’s milk, and the primal experience of burned game meat on the fire.

Today we would like to highlight a powerhouse for umami creation: the fermentation process. We will focus on fermented fish innards from southern Thailand (dtai bpla ไตปลา), one of about a dozen fermented products used in the country. We will show you how chefs for the capital’s elite, as early as or, before the reign of King Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II, 1767-1824), harnessed its wild nature and created a dish similar to what we present today - a salad with infused fermented fish innards dressing.

Yellow sour curry (gaaeng leuuang, แกงเหลือง) is considered a comfort food for the people of Thailand’s southern region. Lavish amounts of fresh turmeric give this spicy, sour and salty curry its rich yellow tint, as well as its earthy aroma and a pleasantly bitter taste. The curry also contains generous portions of the southern dark fermented shrimp paste, resulting in a cloudy, ochre-colored dish.

Southern yellow sour curry is primarily made with saltwater fish, and with either water spinach (phak boong ผักบุ้ง), bamboo shoots (fresh or pickled), green papaya, the stems of the giant elephant ear plant (Colocasia gigantea) (aaw dip อ้อดิบ or thuun ทูน), winter melon (fak khiaao ฟักเขียว) or lotus stems. But versions of the curry that include freshwater fish, shrimp, salted threadfin fish (bplaa goo lao khem ปลากุเลาเค็ม), or even beef or pork belly, are not rare.

Each leaf-wrapped parcel is a kaleidoscope of flavors and richness, textures, aromas and sensations. Fresh green-earthy-chlorophyll-herby-tobacco-peppery wild betel leaves enfold bursts of flavor from nutty roasted peanuts and crispy roasted coconut matches, the umami of savory dry shrimp, pungent-sweet diced shallots, small ginger cubes with a warm bite, sour and bitter unpeeled lime cubes, citrusy perfumed diced bitter orange (som za), naughty whole fresh tiny bird’s eye chilies, and small slices of the sharp and sour dtaling bpling (Averrhoa bilimbi, a relative of the carambola/starfuit). All of which is blended with a thick paste of sweet-sour and salty palm sugar and tamarind sauce.

The miang kham takes every taste bud on a fascinating pleasure trip through sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami, piquancy, sharpness and spiciness, with an array of textures that slowly subside as the journey ends, leading to a familiar post orgasmic expression, a smile and the desire for more.

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