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Chilli Provides the Spice

chili peppers "Kgin Ped Dai Mai?", "Can you eat spicy hot food?" is the challenging query raised by waiters and waitresses in many Thai restaurants. Thai cooking is famous, or maybe infamous is the better word, for the fiery sauces and dips that accompany many dishes. This is a somewhat undeserved reputation as a good Thai meal is a harmonious blend of flavours, of spicy and bland, of wet and dry, of fresh and cooked, and of salty and sweet. Nowadays most of the volcanic heat comes from the ferocious chilli, lurking fire-red or deceptively green, somewhere on your plate. This has not always been the case as chillies (Prik) are a fairly recent immigrant from Central America. Formerly the paint-stripper strength of Thai spiciness came from black pepper (Prik Thai), the dried fruits of the native pepper vine. However the chilli is one Western cultural import that has been enthusiastically and wholeheartedly embraced by the Thais, and has become firmly established in their marvellous cuisine.

The chilli is a versatile vegetable, fruit or spice, call it what you will, that has spread from its humble roots in the New World to conquer the globe, wherever there is enough heat and sunlight for its successful cultivation. Its infinite forms range from the bland sweet or bell peppers to some of the Mexican varieties that can almost render a room uninhabitable with their venomous strength. Many different varieties have been developed in Thailand since the Portuguese established the first chilli beachhead in Southeast Asia some 400 years ago. Most chilli varieties have been developed from Capsicum annuum, the annual chilli, requiring re-sowing each season, but a small number have descended from the longer-lived Capsicum frutescens, that has given the Thais their flame-thrower-powered Prik Khee Noo, literally "rat-dropping chilli" because of its shape and size.

In Thailand's fresh markets, the whole range of chilli types available can be seen. Mostly these are finger-sized, and may be red, green, orange, yellow or even white in colour. The kick of these can vary from type to type, from colour to colour or from month to month. They may be fresh, dried in the sun or even dried and ground to a powder, but one thing remains constant, their "heat" is concentrated mostly in the tissue surrounding the seeds and attaching the seeds to the inside of the fruit wall. Just as uranium and plutonium are essential to generating the heat in a nuclear power plant, so are the "thermonuclear" properties of chillies concentrated mainly in one compound. This friendly chemical is called capsaicin, and in the United States a scale of "hotness" has been invented for chilli enthusiasts to compare the content of it in their favourite varieties. This so-called Schofield Scale registers Thailand's hottest Prik Kee Noo at a level of 70,000 units, over 10 times hotter than most others sold here, but amazingly pales into insignificance when compared with the Scotch Bonnet type "Habanero" from down Mexico way. This tops the table with 280,000 units, making it virtually a lethal weapon.

When the beginner first meets chilli-spiced food, caution is recommended. Don't eat with your lips, but take the food from the spoon with your teeth. If the heat still gets to you, don't gulp water (or beer!) but chew on a piece of cucumber. The English expression "as cool as a cucumber" didn't arise by chance. A little later you will start to experience the "chilli-buzz". Capsaicin actually is a mood-lifting chemical that can cheer you up for several hours at a time. Best of all, chillies are really very good for you, being incredibly rich sources of Vitamins A and C. A final word of warning though. If you do have a close encounter of the manual kind with chillies, please, please wash your hands thoroughly before attempting any high-risk maneuver like rubbing your eyes or going to the bathroom!

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