Some Like it Hot: Fiery Food in Southeast Asia

It comes as a surprise to many people when they find out that chillies aren’t native to Southeast Asia. The chilli originates from South America and it was Portuguese traders who first introduced chillies into Southeast Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, black pepper was used in Asian cooking, but the new ingredient introduced by the traders proved to be an excellent and cheaper alternative. Since then, the humble but fiery chilli has established itself as a staple ingredient in food found in countries such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

chillies in Southeast Asia

When you first visit Southeast Asia, you soon discover how important food is in everyday life. Food vendors are open around the clock and social events revolve around food. If food isn’t actually being eaten, there’s a good chance it’s being spoken about or thought about. If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, try to sample the local food wherever you go. It’s one of the best ways to experience the culture and meet local people. And don’t worry if you think that every dish you order will be piled high with chillies and you’ll need a team of firefighters on standby. In Southeast Asian cooking, especially in Thai food, it’s the balance of flavours which is important.

The Four Basic Tastes in Thai Cooking

In Thai cooking there are four basic tastes; sweet, sour, salty and pungent. They all combine to produce different flavours. Although chillies figure in many dishes they aren’t there for heat. The chilli is there to provide flavour and balance to the rest of the ingredients. If you get an opportunity to visit a fresh food market anywhere in Southeast Asia, be sure to take it. They are a fascinating place to visit and once you’ve been to one you’ll never look at a supermarket in your home country the same way again.

fresh food market in Nakhon Phanom, north-east Thailand

Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Whether you’re accustomed to eating spicy food or not, here’s a useful tip for dealing with that moment when you’re on a trip to Southeast Asia and bite into an extra-hot chilli. The immediate urge is to reach for a glass of water, but that may only help to spread the burning sensation around your mouth. Instead, try eating a couple of spoonfuls of steamed rice which will help to ease the burning sensation more quickly than water. And don’t assume that the spiciest chilies will always be the red ones. In Thailand, they call the small green chillies ‘phrik kii noo‘ which translates as ‘mouse shit chillies.’ These potent green chillies aren’t always obvious to spot amongst the other ingredients in the food, but they’re more fiery than the larger red chillies so don’t underestimate their power.

chillies for sale in Bangkok, Thailand

Asking for Less Spicy Food in Southeast Asia

Not everybody takes to the food in Southeast Asia immediately. Even if you’re used to eating Asian food in your home country, there can be big differences in taste between the local version of a dish compared to that which is served in a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant abroad.

Don’t be ashamed to ask for your food to be prepared less spicy than normal. If you can learn a few phrases of the local language it helps break the ice and can add to the enjoyment of eating out. Getting the pronunciation correct isn’t always easy because many Southeast Asian languages are tonal. If you have a tour guide on your trip, try to learn a few phrases from them and ask them too for recommendations on what to eat and where. If not, try asking the staff at your hotel. Most people will be happy to help you because it shows you are making an effort and that is always appreciated. Don’t take yourself too seriously and be prepared to laugh at yourself as you attempt to use the local language. Remember, laughter is food for the soul so fill up whenever you can and enjoy your visit to Southeast Asia.

Discover the Delights of Southeast Asian Food

If you’d like to try your hand at cooking local dishes during your trip to Thailand or Vietnam, you may enjoy these tours:
Thailand: improve your Thai cooking skills and enjoy the rural beauty of northern Thailand »
Vietnam: cooking classes in the Mekong River Delta »

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