When most people think of Thai cuisine, they instantly think of the heat of chillies. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until the seventeenth century that Portuguese traders introduce the chilli to Thailand. The heat of spice is one of the four major flavour components used to create balance in Thai cookery, the others being salty, sweet and sour. Up until the introduction of chilli, pepper was used for this heat balance, as witnessed in this deliciously addictive paste. White peppercorns are chosen because they are hotter.

The paste has two main uses.
As a marinade; Rub it into joints of chicken, set aside for a few hours and then grill over hot coals to create the famous Thai street side stall dish of barbecued chicken, and
As a stir fry paste; simply heat oil in a wok, stir fry the paste for a few seconds, until it smells aromatic, then add your main ingredients. Here the possibilities are endless. Try chicken and green beans, tofu and cashew nuts or prawns (shrimp) and water spinach (ong choy). Finish with some fish sauce, sugar and basil and serve with jasmine rice. Dinner in fifteen minutes. Get to it!

Ingredients

Method

Blend all the ingredients in a food processor until it is a paste, or just grind it all up in a mortar and pestle. Makes enough for 1 BBQ chicken or 2-3 stir-fries. Lasts in the refrigerator, covered for 2 weeks.

Yum. Good one, sneff.

Note too that in the Thai language peppercorns are called prik thai, while chilis are called prik, plus usually some other descriptor which classifies the particular species of pepper. So the language reveals the origins. It's a testament to the Thai ability to incorporate and make something their own that chilis have become so integral to Thai cooking.

Those fiery hot little Thai chilis, by the way, are called prik kee noo (there's tones in there, but I can't write them in English), which translates as "mouse shit peppers". Because of their size and shape, or their ubiquity, I'm not sure.

However, I need to mention also that there are actually five flavours in Thai cooking: spicy, sour, sweet, and salty, as the able sneff mentioned, but also bitter. Sneff can of course be forgiven for leaving out the last one; it was certainly never one of my favourites. Perhaps most familiar to westerners who know Asian food is bitter melon, also used a lot in Chinese food (and sometimes on Iron Chef), but there are also bitter leaves and vegetables like pea eggplants. An ideal Thai meal - for a Thai - combines all the five flavours in a variety of dishes. For westerners, as I said, just the four sneff mentions are usually sufficient.

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