Chili pepper ‘Prik’ is possibly the spice that would come to one’s mind first when thinking about Thai herbs and spices and the one drawing the line between the cooking and eating culture of Thailand and many other countries.
Chili (Capsicum annuum) had originated from a few locations in the American continent and has spread in central and south America as well as the Caribbeans. Sent by his patrons Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand who have hoped to obtain black pepper, it was Christopher Columbus who was the first westerner to run into the capsicum genus including chilies in the Caribbeans. Based on his observations of how central chili was for the Caribbean cultures, Columbus praised the new finding and made a great effort to position chili as a worthy replacement for black pepper. He even named it pepper in a conscious attempt to market it as equal to the king of spices. However the Spaniards back home weren’t impressed. The Portuguese however saw the potential and started trading in chilies, first in western Africa, then western India, then southeast Asia, China and Japan. It took about 50 years for the chilies to complete a full circle of the world.
Chilies have been adopted immediately in India and became as popular in southeast Asia from the 16th century and on. Chilies have become so central to Thai cuisine that even though there weren’t always there, one cannot imagine Thai food without them. They are used abundantly across the entire repertoire of Thai dishes from curry pastes ‘Prik Kaeng’, Salads ‘Yum’ through snacks ‘Khanom’ and even the standard set of table condiments that can be found in every restaurant and family table in Thailand allowing diners to adjust seasoning with extra chili heat. Today Thailand is at the top of the list of chili consumption per capita.
Acceptance of chilies has been an interesting cultural battle. While about a quarter of world cuisines cannot exist without them, in other parts of the world chilies were tabooed almost. The good news are that they have been continuously gaining popularity around the world in the course of the last 30-40 years, including in chili adamant countries, as ethnic cuisines are making their way into the mainstream.
Traditionally different varieties of chilies have different roles in Thai cooking. Some of the main varieties are:
‘Prik Chee Fah’ or Spur chilies. ‘Chee Fah’ means point the sky, which speak to the way the chili fruits are oriented on the plant pointing up. This is a spicy yet not the spiciest of chilies in Thailand. It is very commonly used in variety of dishes including stir-fries, salads and and as a garnish. In its dry form, ‘Prik Chee Fah’ is the go to chili for vast majority of Thai curry pastes ‘Nam Prik Kaeng’ especially when a relatively less spicy curry is requested.
‘Prik Kee Nu’ or Bird’s eye chilies are probably the most famous of all Thai chilies outside of Thailand. The small chilies are notoriously known for their heat, although quite hot they are actually not the hottest. Green ones would be slightly milder with a greener unripe flavor, while red would be spicier and have fuller flavor. ‘Prik Kee Nu’ are commonly used in salads ‘Yum’, green curry and in many more applications.
‘Prik Kee Nu Suan’ are a smaller rounded tip variety of bird’s eye chilies that are even spicier. Can be used interchangibly with bird’s eye.
‘Prik Leuang’ are an orange variety that are quite spicy. They are used in stir-fries and other dishes.
‘Prik Kariang’ is smaller and spicier than bird eye chilies.
‘Prik Yuak’ are much milder chilies that can be used as a vegetable in curries and other dished. They have a light green color and are larger in size and are also known as ‘Banana chilies’,