Many people seem to think that ‘real’ Thai food has to be spicy – and some sadly avoid eating Thai food altogether because they are afraid of the heat. This is a sad thing, because it is not at all the case that all Thai food is laden with chilli. True, there are many authentic Thai dishes – for example some relishes and curries – that would not be right without a good hit of heat from chilli, however there are many Thai dishes that are mild or even without any heat.
Thai people were seasoning their food for eons before the introduction of chillies, said to be around the start of the 16th century. Subtle heat was obtained from various peppers such as white, black and green peppercorns, still a favorite in Thai cuisine today. There are many Thai recipes that predate the introduction of chilli – so, myth busted!
The heat in Thai food comes from a great variety of possible sources, only one of which is the much touted (and sometimes feared) ‘mouse s**t’ chilli. A red curry will usually derive its colour from the dried red chillies in the curry paste. If you are making your own curry paste you get to control the heat. There is great variability in the heat of fresh and dried chillies, so the first time you use some from a batch you are experimenting with the level of the heat. If you leave the seeds in the curry paste will be hotter. Fresh chillies, even of from the same batch, can vary a lot in intensity. You could sample one and find it as mild as a capsicum and another could make your eyes water. My tip is to respect the palates of your guests and either make them Thai food with a level of heat that your are confident they will enjoy, or make them a Thai dish without any heat that is perhaps less familiar to them but just as authentic.
I recently read an article by a ‘Thai Food Expert’ that claimed that Thais cook with green and yellow chillies as well as red – so that is why there are green and yellow curries! This is NOT true! While green chillies are usually included in a green curry paste, the main colour comes from the herbs in the curry paste, including basil and kaffir lime leaf. The colour of yellow curry usually comes from turmeric. This ‘expert’ also advocated substituting paprika or cayenne for red chilli – this would mean that your dish may still be enjoyable but could not longer proudly call itself Thai!
When dining on Thai food that you have not prepared yourself you can usually see the chilli and so can work around it if you don’t like it. This is easier to do for a salad or stir-fry and harder when the chilli has been added through a paste or relish.
A very common thing when dining out in Thailand is that the restaurant will give you a basket of condiments to season your food. This is common even at street-side places. Some people think that you are ‘disrespecting the chef’ if you adjust the flavours at the table – but that is why you are given the opportunity – because all palates are different. The condiments usually include white sugar so you can adjust the sweetness, dried chillies for extra chilli flavour and heat, fish sauce for pungency and vinegar with sliced fresh chillies for extra sourness and heat if you want it. Some people ask for ‘nahm prik ’ on the side – this means ‘fluid chilli’ and will generally be chopped fresh chillies in fish sauce. My own favourite additive is just the chilli without the fish sauce and most eateries in Thailand happily respond to a request for “chopped chillies”. If you are struggling to get this across ask for “prik” and make a chopping gesture with one hand into your palm!
Here is a simple recipe for a very Thai tasting whole fish – and you get to decide how much (if any) chilli you will include.
Thai Whole Fish with Basil
One 600 to 800 gram whole fish – I use snapper and in Thailand it is very common to be served tilapia
Rice flour (or tapioca flour, or corn flour) for dusting the fish
Three large cloves of fresh garlic
Your choice of chilli – one or more teaspoons of dried flaked chilli, or one or more fresh chillies. This is where you decide – the recipe is just as tasty without any chilli at all and you can serve chopped chilli on the side for heat-loving diners
Three tablespoons of white sugar
Half a cup (125 mls) of fish sauce
A bunch of Thai basil (bai horapha) – purple stem, green leaves, often with flowers. If you substitute European style basil you dish will still be delicious but will not be so ‘Thai tasty’
Dissolve the sugar in the fish sauce.
Pound the garlic with a little salt in a mortar and pestle until it turns into a paste and then the pound in the chilli if you have decided to add it.
Wash the basil and discard the stalks.
Dust the fish with flour.
Heat enough oil in a wok to semi-submerge the fish for frying. You don’t need to cover the fish with oil because you will turn it half way through cooking. When you have the oil very hot the fish will cook cleanly and you will be left with almost as much oil as you started with after cooking.
Fry the fish for around 8-10 minutes each side, testing with a knife to ensure it has cooked through.
Remove the fish from the wok, drain almost all of the oil and then quickly stir-fry the garlic. Tip in the fish sauce and sugar mixture and stir through quickly, then add the basil just until it wilts. Serve the fish on a platter adorned with the dressing and herbs.
I serve this delicious fish with steamed sticky rice as part of a Thai family style meal – more on that in another post coming up!