Dear Chef Boy Ari,
I like spicy food, to a point.
Too much spice and I feel the pain at both the “import” and “export” ends, if you know what I mean, as well as in the middle. But without a little heat, it isn’t a meal.
The problem is that if I add a chopped chili pepper to what I’m making, I can bring the overall dish to the correct level of heat, but it’s now littered with chili fragments and seeds, which explode like landmines in my mouth.
Sometimes I use hot sauce, but I really prefer the flavor of fresh chilis. Can you suggest a way for me to have my chili and eat it too?
—Too Hot to Handle
Dear Too Hot,
Since I can’t really relate to your wimpy sensibilities, I proposed your question to my friend David, a geometry whiz who dedicates his spare time to doing food research.
“I like to keep a habanero pepper in a little container in the freezer,” he says. “When I want the heat but not the IEDs, I simply drop my habanero into the pot or pan, and let it swim around until the heat is right. Then I rinse it in cold water and put it back in the freezer.”
By the way, while the habenero is widely considered the world’s hottest chili pepper — in fact, the Red Savina strain of habanero once made the Guinness Book with 577,000 Scoville Heat Units (SCU) — it’s recently been upstaged by the Bhut Jolokia chili pepper of northern India. Boasting 1,001,304 SCU, the Bhut Jolokia contains nearly twice the heat of the dethroned extra-red habanero, making its “discoverer,” Paul Bausland of New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute, very proud. This is definitely a pepper to leave whole a la David’s advice, as even a fragment could tear Satan a new one.
I’ve been wondering for a while what the deal is with fish sauce, and since you were just in Thailand I thought I’d ask. How can something that smells so strong be so popular? I’ve tried cooking with it, and the food ends up tasting like fish sauce smells, which is too fishy for me.
I love Thai food, and I know they use a lot of fish sauce, so I’m wondering how they get away with it?
—Not Quite Hooked
My neighbor, a man of great wisdom, once remarked “There’s two things that smell like fish, and one of them’s fish.” The other one, of course, is fish sauce.
The trick to using fish sauce is that you add it to dishes that have strong flavors in other ways, and the power of the competing flavors balances out.
There is a type of Thai spicy salad, for example, called yam, that’s made in a big mortar and pestle, with lots of chili, lime, vinegar, curry powder, pork rind, whole small crabs, and other very strong flavors. I watched a guy make me some at a Bangkok market, and between scoops into the various ingredients he would rinse his spoon by squirting it with fish sauce over the salad. After a bunch of rinses, he added more fish sauce and stirred it up.
I proceeded to eat my salad, and you know what? It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve eaten in Bangkok, due in no small part to all the fish sauce.
That’s the other part of your issue: You simply haven’t acquired the taste for the stuff.
But a good coconut curry, with lots of lemongrass, lime, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, etc., is so strong that it can hold its own and absorb a lot of fish sauce without being overwhelmed, and even novices like you or me can appreciate it.
Stumped in the kitchen or café? Ask Chef Boy Ari at email@example.com