Samui Wining & Dining
Spice Alert !

How to get just the right amount of chilli in Thai restaurants.

How to get just the right amount of chilli in Thai restaurants.Usually at the kitchen table, the complaint is that things need to be spiced up. The dinner is too bland! Something's missing! Here in Thailand it's just the opposite. Nothing's missing, but there’s definitely too much of something else – chilli!

Many people who come to Thailand are attracted by the thought of the cuisine here. After all, it's ranked amongst the world's finest. But as keen as some are to try it, they draw back because of one factor: the fieriness. The good news is the Thai chefs can and will tone down the spiciness of dishes to suit their guests from abroad.

The obvious way that they do this is to reduce the number of chillies that they use. Since most Thai food is made from scratch, and is prepared only when the order is taken, this is quite easy to do.

But is Thai food without chillies (or even so many) even Thai at all? It most certainly is. Food historians point out that the chilli isn’t even native to Thailand. Blame Christopher Columbus, who started so much ferrying of foodstuffs across the globe in the 16th century. Chillies went down into many a ships’ hold and made their way eastwards, gathering brand new admirers wherever they were incorporated into local diets. Black peppercorns were the original source of fire in Thai food, long before chillies made their appearance. Today peppercorns are still a big part of various marinades for grilled chicken and beef. But hey're definitely not as spicy as their newer post-Columbus counterparts.

Although nobody worries about culinary history when they sit down to a delicious meal, chillies are always singled out as the chief culprit when coughing, spluttering and excess sweating starts up over a fiery meal. Some restaurants therefore automatically adjust the spice level as soon as they receive an order from a western guest. At others a slightly different tack is taken. “We always ask guests how spicy they want the dish,” says Khun Jeab, who runs a small restaurant in Maenam. “Some people can eat food that is really hot. For them it's no problem at all. You can never be sure so it's best to always ask.”

These ideas are echoed pretty much everywhere on Samui. The island’s chefs take pride in making sure their guests receive maximum satisfaction; the restaurants here are more personal. All you have to do is state your preferences. The same goes for ginger or any other spices.

Other chefs throw in more lime juice or add a bit more vinegar. Where curry sauces are used, the creaminess is often given a boost by adding more coconut milk. The milk is made by rinsing the oils out of coconut flesh with warm water. Canned coconut milk is an easy way to tone down spiciness, and at times it’s the only way forward. That’s because curry pastes are pre-made, so the chillies are already mixed in and impossible to remove.

Though Thai cuisine is amazingly complex, all chefs focus on one time-honoured guideline: the dish should be a balance of sour, sweet, bitter and salty. Its sheer fieriness doesn’t appear in the equation; it’s second to other considerations. This is good news, as it means dishes don’t need to burn the back of the throat to be authentic – and they never have.

So it’s always a good idea to make your preferences known so the chef can adapt. But what to do if your meal is already on the table? In Thailand, sugar is on the table along with fish oil, chilli oil, and dried chilli. Thais will add sugar to a dish to temper the spiciness. They'll also munch on rice to take away the sting of their food.

Plenty of Thai flavours originate other less punishing ingredients: Thai basil has a delicious anise flavour, and is pleasantly sweet, while galangal, lemongrass, mint and coriander are also part and parcel of Thai cuisine, and figure just as much in cooking as chillies.

And of course, some dishes are as unspicy as any back home in the west. One of Thailand’s most famed dishes is pad Thai – just look at how many restaurants world-wide are named after it. With pad Thai it’s up to you if you want it fiery. If you do, you have to add flakes of dried chilli to it by yourself.

Eating Thai doesn’t need to be done with caution. It’s a wondrous cuisine, and just because you don’t want to endure the heat of chillies, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat it. To paraphrase an old saying: if you can’t stand the heat, speak to the kitchen. That’s definitely one solution, and another is to enjoy one of the numerous dishes that all Thai kitchens make that are traditionally low on fiery spices; Thai cuisine is so varied that there's always something that’ll take your fancy.


Dimitri Waring


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