Thais Like It Hot
ขอพริกป่นคั่วหน่อยค่ะ – Kho Prik Phon Krua Noi Kha, “May I have a little bit of chili powder?” This is a typical question to ask at a food stall if you wish to kick up the heat a notch or two on the food you were served. This is not considered an offense at all to Thai cooks. In general most Thais like it hot, but some like it hotter. Chili powder personalizes the spiciness to suit one’s mood.
In my Thai village, or any part of Thailand, roasted Thai chili powder – พริกป่นคั่ว- Prik Phon Krua – is a basic ingredient that is always within reach to spice up food. Having a little fish sauce and chili powder at hand is as common to Thai culture as salt and pepper are to Western culture. The most important thing for a cook new to Thai cuisine to understand is that chili pepper, which has a spicy taste, is used to balance and improve the harmony of flavor with sour, salty and sweet. It is not to make foods spicy hot, but rather to enhance their flavor or to create a harmony of flavor with sweet, sour and salty. This is what makes eating Thai food a memorable experience. If you are not a big fan of hot food, just try a little bit each time. A little chili powder goes a long way, and you will learn how the lively spicy taste can bring out the potential of other flavors to make the food taste great at the next level.
In my Thai kitchen, I use Thai chili powder two ways. One is as an ingredient in Thai salads, soups, dipping sauce, etc. The other is as a condiment available on the dining table.
Chili powder is one of the ingredients used everyday in Thai kitchens. I want to take this opportunity to demystify it. Chili powder is usually made from small dried Thai chilis, simply ground into a chili powder we call – พริกป่น – Prik Phon. But there are other chili powders as well and how the chilis are prepared before grinding—such as roasted in the oven or fried—determines whether it has the fresh flavor of heat or an intensely delicate flavor. A delightful roasted chili powder – พริกป่นคั่ว – is called Prik Phon Krua. It is made from chilis roasted without any oil in a wok or in an oven. Thais often serve fried whole chilis – Prik Tod -พริกทอด- as a condiment or garnish. Or fried chilis can be ground or crushed into a powder called Prik Pon Tod – พริกป่นทอด.
My secret chili powder blend above is a mix of my three favorite chilis for use in Thai cooking
Top left is the Chile de Arbol, also known as bird’s beak chili, which has a heat index between 15,000 and 30,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a measurement of the spicy heat of chili peppers and other spicy foods. Top right is dried Japones Chili pepper, also known as Japanese Chili, with a heat index between 15,000 and 30,000 SHU, or, according to some sources, 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. On the bottom right are Thai Kitchen Thai Bird’s Eye Chilis. They are hot and intense, and a little shorter than the more common Thai Bird’s Eye Chilis which have 50,000 to 100,000 SHUs. Some bird’s eye chilis can be as hot as 100,000–225,000 SHU. Try using one type of chili at a time to get to know each one’s level of taste and aroma and the intensity of the heat it produces.
Roasted Chili Powder – Prik Phon Khua – พริกป่นคั่ว
You may choose one or more type of chilis to make chili powder. The recipe below is one I often prepare for my class. It uses chile de arbol, which has fewer SHU and a beautiful and interesting flavor. One cup of dry Thai chilis is anywhere from 80 to 90 chilis. After roasting and grinding they will yield about 7 tablespoons of dried chili powder. Typically, a teaspoon of chili powder is made from about 4 chilis. Keep the powder in an airtight jar.
Ingredients1.4 ounces dry Thai, de arbol, or japones chilis
Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees F. Place one layer of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Spread the chilis out evenly on the paper, and place the baking sheet in the center of the preheated oven. Turn the range hood fan on high. After 3 minutes, begin opening the oven door every 30 seconds—less often at the end—to prevent the chilis from burning. The color will get deeper red, red-brown, or maroon-red depending on the type of the chili. Remove the chilis from the oven when they change to the deeper colors. When cooled, ground the peppers down to the desired texture: coarse, medium, or powdery. Place in a jar with an airtight lid. It will stay fresh for about 3 months, or you can store the ground powder in the freezer.