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Thai Chillies – Prik Kee Noo

by Kasma Loha-unchit

See also: When Chillies are Too Hot

Of Chillies and "Mice"

Thai ChillieTons of chillies are generously used every day in restaurants and homes across the kingdom. In rural areas, just about every home grows its own chilli bushes. Historical evidence, however, suggests that the many varieties used in Thailand are not indigenous to Asia but have migrated from the New World, to fulfill their destinies in Thai kitchens. The path of these chillies parallels the history of the Thai people themselves, whose ancestors – a minority people – migrated from Yunnan province in southern China to find a place they could call home.

Of all spicy flavors used in Thai cooking, the most popular comes from the smallest of chillies, prik kee noo. Literally translated, the name means "mouse shit chillies." (See The Word "Kee" in Feature Articles.)

Why mouse shit chillies? Mice are playful little creatures and like to hide. (Thai children are taught from the time they can talk to refer to themselves with the personal pronoun "mouse," or noo. We never say "I," but noo did this and noo did that.) Sometimes the only clues that tell us they have been around are the tiny food scraps or droppings they leave behind. Thai chillies are little guys much like mice, and they leave behind unseen evidence in the food they touch – but you definitely know they have been there! Like mice, they like to hide, under cilantro leaves and behind pieces of shrimp and other food particles. When you least suspect, they find their way into your mouth and wow! What a sensation! You may even cuss and swear with the "s" word itself.

Thai Chillies Prik kee noo is sometimes called "bird pepper," most likely because birds consume wild chillies and help to disperse the seeds. Someone once told me it is the name of a similar pepper in some African cultures. Birds are immune to the heat in chillies because they do not have taste buds that register the hot sensation like humans and land mammals do. However, chillies do have notable effects on certain birds. They say, for instance, that the hill myna birds, kept as pets by many Thais, especially in the south, are much more gregarious and eloquent in their language skills when fed lots of prik kee noo (so are many humans). These very smart birds from the tropical rain forests can emulate most sounds they hear, much like parrots. Walking down the sidewalks in the southern port town of Krabi, don't be surprised if a shiny black-feathered creature with a bright orange beak, an iridescent yellow stripe on either side of its face and a curtain-like flap of the same bright color extending from the corner of one eye to the other woos you, letting out first gkaeow jah ("Hi there, parrot"), followed by "Have you eaten yet?" (in Thai, of course) and a quick, robust, very human-like laugh.

Prik Kee Noo

According to historical accounts, the Portuguese were the "birds" who dropped chilli peppers into the hands of our ancestors in the sixteenth century, after the Spanish initially transported them from the New World to Europe. Some accounts suggested that chillies, because of their high concentration of vitamin C, were eaten by sailors together with ginger, as a preventative against scurvy, long before it was discovered that oranges could perform the same function.

Researchers believe nearly all the different kinds of chilli peppers around the world are descendants of plants native to South and Central America. Chillies have been cultivated by Native Americans since around 6000 B.C.E.. Chillies have traveled far and wide and been grown under all kinds of conditions and in different types of soils. The little prik kee noo is a Thai-cultivated variety of the New World chilli "aji", now called "Thai chillies" when sold in Western markets. Small and slender, they are intensely hot. The smaller they are, the hotter they seem to be. In fact, there is a strain of prik kee noo called prik kee noo suan, which is no larger than the head of a nail but packs a wallop of a bang. So don't look down on little things; there is much spiciness and liveliness concentrated in small, unsuspecting packages. Beware of these tiny mice for they can reduce a big and burley meat-and-potatoes man to nothing but a pool of tears. Their hotness, however, is not the only quality that has endeared them to the Thai people: they have a distinctive fragrant taste that spicy food enthusiasts grow to love. Substituting with other kinds of chillies sometimes can be disappointing.

In Thailand, dinner tables are set not with salt and pepper shakers but instead with these tiny chillies cut up and swimming in a dish of fish sauce (nahm bplah). (See our Blog on Thai Salt and Pepper.) Try making some for your next Thai meal. Cut the chillies in small thin rounds, place them in a sauce dish and cover with fish sauce. Spoon chillies and sauce over whatever needs pepping up and, after a few times, you may find yourself addicted to these lovable mice. One of my American friends developed such a liking for these little chillies that after spending a few months traveling around Thailand, one of his favorite breakfasts became Thai-style fried eggs over plain steamed rice, which he spiced up with spoonfuls of nahm bplah prik, prik kee noo in fish sauce. (Thai people like to fry their eggs in very hot oil, making the edges of the whites crispy while the yolks are still partially soft.)

Dry Prik Kee Noo Prik kee noo chillies turn from a deep green to a bright red when they ripen. The green ones have a very strong and immediate bite to them, while some of the red ones may delay releasing their full potency, catching up with you when you are unsuspecting. They can be just as hot as the green ones. If you are not using your batch of Thai chillies fast enough, they dry easily for future use by being left out uncovered on a plate in the kitchen. The red ones dry more easily than the green ones, which require more air circulation and light. Placing them on a wire rack out in the sun will speed up their drying. Thai chillies dry well because they are not fleshy like larger varieties such as jalapeños or serranos; they are primarily a bag of seeds held together by a thin skin. Never bother to go through the tedious task of deseeding them. I usually do not remove seeds from any kind of fresh chilli peppers except when I use the larger kinds of dried red chillies for making chilli pastes with a roasted flavor. Then I remove the seeds and discard them since the roasted dried pods are more flavorful, and I add more pods until the desired chilli flavor, roasted aroma and heat level are obtained.

Besides prik kee noo, there are many other kinds of chillies used in Thai cooking. Among them are prik leuang, an orangish yellow chillie with good flavor and quite hot, though nothing close to a prik kee noo suan; prik chee fah, dark green or bright red when ripe, about the same size and hotness as a serrano; and prik yuak, a larger, light green pepper similar to the yellow wax pepper. Most are larger than prik kee noo and come in varying colors, shapes and spiciness, but none is quite as hot as the little mice. Because these other types of chillies are not yet readily available in Western markets, the jalapeño, serrano, fresno and yellow wax peppers, carried by many American supermarkets, may be substituted, as they have been in many of the my recipes.

Because chillies are useful not only for their heat but also for their unique and distinctive flavors, the many different varieties are used in a wide range of dishes and sauces to enhance the tastiness of particular meats, vegetables and seafoods. It is not wise to stick to using only one kind of chilli for everything just because we are crazy about it. After all, the more flavor variables we have at our disposal, the more possibilities exist for creating masterpieces for the sophisticated palate. (See Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors.)

Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.

Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit in Dancing Shrimp. All rights reserved.

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