Samui Wining & Dining
If You Can Not Stand The Heat

9Just what is it that makes some Thai food so very hot? 

Why is it that Thai food’s so hot and spicy? No – I don’t mean because it’s got lots of chilies in it…what I mean is why is it hot. And why are some curries hotter than others? What makes them hot? Is it the amount of curry powder used? Or is it something else – another reason altogether.

Thai food hasn’t always been hot and spicy. In fact, if we go back a few hundred years, Thai food wasn’t hot at all. Spicy, yes, but not hot. Like most Asian countries, the staple diet was (and is) rice. And to liven up the bland taste, they added spices, such as ginger and coriander. These are found throughout most of Asia. But the whole story starts to get interesting around about the same time that half of Europe began jumping into sailing ships and charging around the word discovering things.

It was the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who started the ball rolling back in 1498, when he made the first round-the-world voyage. Then in 1492, Columbus brought chilies back to Europe from Central America. Thus it was that in the 17th century, Portuguese traders introduced chilies to Siam (Thailand’s former name).

What makes chilies hot is the substance they contain – capsaicin. This chemical irritates the pain-receptor cells in your mouth, nose and throat. At which point your brain releases endorphins, which not only act as a partial painkiller, but also create a natural feeling of euphoria – a kind of temporary ‘high’. The heart rate and metabolism increases, as does salivation; your nose runs and your digestive tract slips into high speed. It’s no exaggeration to say that lovers of ‘hot’ food crave this chili buzz!

In 1912, an American scientist named Wilbur Scoville developed a way to measure this ‘hotness’. And this is what you: First, you dry your chili, remove the seeds, grind it to a power and dissolve it in alcohol. Then you take a drop of the resulting solution and dilute it with water. You keep diluting it, more and more, until you can no longer taste any of the chilli. And then you calculate how much water was needed to neutralise the taste. Not exactly the pinnacle of Victorian science. This reference scale is still used today, although liquid spectography gives a more accurate indication of the strength of the capsacin. To give some idea of the comparisons, the very mildest chilies need to be diluted to 1,000 times their own volume to drown them out. At the other end of the scale, Thai green chilies would need to be diluted in a small swimming pool – they really are hot. And yes – the green ones are hotter than the red ones.

But it’s still a bit confusing. When you sit down to eat a Thai dish you’ve not had before, will it be too hot – too spicy? It’s impossible to tell just by counting the chilies– even the ones you can see. And what about the curries? They’re always too hot!

Well – yes and no. Not every curry will cauterise your taste buds. And just to complicate matters, the same curry dish in two different restaurants will probably not be the same, either. There’s no universal recipe, and each cook will present his own interpretation of the dish. And to fully appreciate this idea, we need to know exactly just what is a Thai curry.

And it all comes back to chilies again. By the year 1598, both Portugal and Spain had signed treaties with Siam. And, suddenly, there was an influx of spices into Thailand. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, aniseed and chilies appeared, amongst others. It took quite some time for these elements to find their way into general use. The Royal Palace and the Thai nobility were the first recipients. But eventually a different type of ‘curry’ began to emerge throughout Thailand – the sort we know today.

You also have to realise that Thai cooks don’t buy pre-packed or ready-made curry pastes – or use curry powder at all. Each cook proudly blends and makes their own – and often the recipe is a closely guarded secret, handed down from one generation to another.

As a general guide, a curry paste will contain a blend of the following: red or green chilies (removing the seeds gives a milder result); cumin; coriander; galangal or ginger; garlic or charlottes, and lemongrass. And these ingredients are added in different combinations according to the chef’s personal recipe, which is one reason that the same dish can vary so much from one place to the next. The second reason is simpler. The spiciness of the curry depends on how much curry paste is added. So the rule here is to clearly ask for your food, “mai pet” – “not spicy-hot”.

And then there’s one final factor that contributes to a curry’s ‘heat’. As well as the curry paste, the actual dish itself will possibly contain some added chilies, either for flavouring or decoration – depending on what sort of curry it is. Spotting these and removing them will tone down the strength considerably.

Thai food is a uniquely delicious balance of flavours and textures – but many visitors to Thailand are wary of exploring it. But rather than being cautious, why not go for something with a bit more zing? Once you know what makes it hot, you can find ways to get round it.

So in this case, if you can’t stand the heat, don’t keep out of the kitchen! Just the opposite, in fact. Go in there and ask the chef to tone it down a bit – and just show those hot little chilies who the boss really is.


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