It was a surprise. Not the chili itself. But the fact. It’s a fruit. A fruit! I really never thought about it before, but for me, a fruit was more associated with sweet, sour, bitter and even something on the fatty side, but certainly not spicy. But it is, and it burned and burned. I took some sips of water and it burned even more. I was sweating, tiny rivers down my face, my back, arms, everywhere. My lunch companion and good friend Awy was laughing. It’s not spicy, she said. And for her, it wasn’t.
But for me it was just that. Spicy. Nothing else. And I made a decision a good half an hour later when the fruity and forceful attack diluted into something manageable for my palate. This was about 10 years ago, but I decided there and then to beat that bastard called capsaicinoids that so many Thai’s seems to love. And I did. But it took me a good week I admit.
I started out with something a bit more spicy than I actually enjoyed taste wise, which was a bit like nothing in the Thai meaning of spicy, and raised the stake for every dish I ordered. My stomach got airy, my morning routines changed, my heart beat raised. It was a life in heat and air, and I needed to change my t-shirt four times a day to feel something like close to comfortable. But the thing was, I understood soon that there was something behind that explosive spiciness, and I had spotted it, nuanced it, before it again disappeared in sweat and a burning reality.
And I know myself pretty well, I can be a hard nail. So, I didn’t gave up, of course, but I admit I gave it a thought. But never, I said. Never! There’s a reward in the end. And I raised the stake again. Another spoon of chilies in my bowl of beef noodles. Added a few more drops of fish sauce, a little sugar, vinegar. Some of those god-damned crushed peanuts that everybody seems to love. And the taste changed from earlier experiences. A bit like wine, the soup became more full bodied, more tasteful, powerful, more complex.
So what is it that happens? First of all, when consumed, the capsaicinoids in the chili binds with pain receptors responsible for sensing heat in your mouth and throat. Once those receptors are activated by the capsaicinoids, they send a message to your brain that you have consumed something hot. Your brain then responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release of endorphins.
And yes, there it is! The reward. And you’ve probably heard about it before… Yes, that’s right. Those endorphins! The translation is happiness. It probably sounds like a drug, and it actually is. It consists of two parts: endo– and –orphin. Written out in full, it means endogenous and morphine, intended to mean a morphine-like substance originating from within the body. And the principle function of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals, but they may produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by other opioids.
Cool, right. I just loved it when finding it out. A good week later my good friend Awy said with a big surprise in her voice; you’re eating Thai spicy! Of course I was satisfied, but honestly and as a friend of mine told me a good couple of years later; it’s a process more like hanging people by they’re dick to get out the last seamen, but it works.
You can teach your body like you can teach your brain. Love the chilies, try them out, slowly, let the endorphins find they’re way. But don’t give them up. It’s a wonderful world behind that spiciness. My weak of pain ended up with a life in happiness.
Chili in Thai food
Traditional Thai cooking places emphasis on strong aromatic components and a spicy edge. Thai food has a complex interplay of minimum three out of the five fundamental taste senses, either in each dish or in the overall meal. They trigger you by the use of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. In other words, they’re juggling very different elements to create a harmonious finish.
Five main chilies are generally used in preparing Thai food. A very small one, also the hottest one, is the “garden mouse-dropping chili” (phrik khi nu suan). And believe me, they are hot. The slightly larger one is the “mouse-dropping chili” (phrik khi nu) which is almost as hot. The green or red “sky pointing chili” or birds eye chili (phrik chi fa) is less spicy than the smaller chilies, meaning they still have the power of making you sweet if you are not used to it. The larger phrik yuak, is pale green in color and not as spicy and is used more as a “vegetable”. Lastly, we have the dried chilies (phrik hang) which are slightly spicier than the two largest chilies and dried to a dark red color.
An advice is to stick to the last three and you will be fine.
Some historic elements
Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC, meaning something like 9500 years before you’re next chili experience. They were cultivated around the globe after Columbus and Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494.
The spread of chili peppers to Asia was most likely a natural consequence of its introduction to Portuguese traders (Lisbon was a common port of call for Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas) who, aware of its trade value, would have likely promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes then dominated by Portuguese and Arab traders. Today chilies are an integral part of South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.