When it’s chilli

Spicy Thai sal­ads to warm you up

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Ben Chap­man is a chef and the co-owner of Smok­ing Goat Thai eatery in Soho, Lon­don; @Smok­ingGoat Soho

On land­ing in Bangkok last year, restau­rant man­ager Luke and I went straight to Khua Kling Pak Sod, tucked away on Thon­glor Soi 5. Usu­ally packed, this restau­rant serves what’s de­scribed as au­then­tic south­ern-style Thai food: that means spicy as hell and heav­ier on the co­conut cream than the sour, pun­gent dishes from fur­ther north, which we touched upon last week.

We’re feel­ing in­trepid as we order, which the waiter clearly no­tices, cock­ing his head as we choose the dishes. First to ar­rive is the name­sake khua

kling, a dry pork-mince curry that’s fried hard in a hot wok with a type of small red chilli called prik kee noo suan. From a fam­ily of chill­ies that trans­lates as “mouse-shit chill­ies” or, specif­i­cally in this case, “rat’s turd”, they have an, err, knob­bled ap­pear­ance – small and rel­a­tively in­no­cent-look­ing. They could pass for the more typ­i­cal Thai bird’s-eye va­ri­eties, but the small plate of curry in front of us is fiercely hot. For us farangs (for­eign­ers) dumped here via the flavour vac­uum that is long-haul air travel, this is a po­ten­tially lethal dosage. As I eye­ball the nu­clear hum that the

khua kling emits, Luke dives straight in and scoops up a mouth­ful: whole chill­ies, stalks and all. Well, we’re in this to­gether now, I think, fol­low­ing his lead. It’s spicy – sharp and laser­like – but that doesn’t stop us go­ing back for more. That’s the thing with smaller fresh chill­ies – they burn bright for a short time, then you want more. Com­bined with the sweet­ness of palm sugar and rich umami of fer­mented shrimp, the dish’s heat is bal­anced. Nonethe­less, when a bowl of co­conut soup – bai leang tom kati – ar­rives, we are ex­tremely thank­ful. It’s a fra­grant an­ti­dote to the heat but also, we no­tice, some­thing that tastes all the bet­ter for be­ing eaten with a hot dish. The “rat’s turd” awak­ened our mouths to ev­ery sin­gle herbal, salty de­tail in the neigh­bour­ing dishes. Chilli heat lifts other flavours around it.

The chill­ies de­scribed here are prized for be­ing hot, but that is just the start of the story. In the world of small, hot chill­ies, you have green (white-pep­pery) and red (fruity) bird’seyes, which you will be fa­mil­iar with, while the chill­ies typ­i­cal to Laos are lemony and sourly fruity, and the small Yun­nanese bell-shaped chill­ies are ex­tremely hot and flo­ral. Each va­ri­ety has not only a dif­fer­ent level of heat but a dif­fer­ent flavour.

As you eat your way around Thailand, you start to no­tice how the chill­ies more typ­i­cal of the re­gion in which you’re travelling af­fect the style of cook­ing. The very hot chill­ies you see in ar­eas that bor­der Laos tend to be used to cre­ate lighter, more herbal dishes. A good ex­am­ple is the Laos-style fish laap recipe be­low.

Dried chill­ies tend to de­liver their heat more slowly. That heat will last much longer in your mouth. While they’re the ba­sis for most curry pastes, I tend to think of dried chill­ies as prin­ci­pally aro­matic. Try toast­ing dried chilli lightly be­fore us­ing it – you’ll no­tice how richly per­fumed it can be.

The beef salad recipe over­leaf re­lies on dried chilli and is a north­ern Thaistyle laap, made with warm­ing dry spices such as cumin and mahk­wean (a rel­a­tive of Szechuan pep­per). The beef should be chopped by hand with a lit­tle of­fal and then very gen­tly fried in oil with the lemon­grass and a whole dried chilli. I sug­gest you serve it loos­ened with a lit­tle stock; this soupy style brings for­ward the heady, tonic-like qual­ity of toasted spices and of­fally meat. Quite op­po­site in style, these two laaps demon­strate the dif­fer­ing uses of chilli be­tween Thai re­gions.

Laos-style fish laap

Be care­ful not to over­work the fish or the herbs or it will all be a lit­tle sod­den. The sweet­ness comes from the deep-fried lemon­grass and shal­lot rather than sugar, and the re­sult is a re­strained but bal­anced dish where the heat of fresh chilli am­pli­fies the fresh fish and any herbs you are us­ing.

Serves 4

2 stalks lemon­grass, in­ner parts very finely sliced (re­serve outer parts to flavour cook­ing water)

4 gar­lic cloves, peeled and roughly diced

4 Thai shal­lots, peeled and roughly diced (or ba­nana shal­lots if you can’t find the small Thai type)

Veg­etable oil

400g large flaky white fish – eg hake

For the salad

2 bird’s-eye chill­ies (red and green), very finely sliced

2 hand­fuls mint leaves, roughly sliced

1 hand­ful Viet­namese mint or laksa leaves (op­tional), roughly sliced

2 shal­lots or a red onion, sliced

From a fam­ily of chill­ies known as ‘rat’s turd’, they are small and rel­a­tively in­no­cent­look­ing

For the dress­ing

4 tbsp fish sauce or pla raa (fer­mented fresh­wa­ter fish), if you can find it

4 tbsp fresh lime juice

To gar­nish

2 fresh makrut lime leaves, finely sliced, any stalks and trim­mings re­served for flavour­ings (op­tional)

1 stalk lemon­grass, outer leaves re­served for flavour­ings, in­ner parts very finely sliced

1 Gen­tly fry the lemon­grass, gar­lic and shal­lot un­til golden brown in veg­etable oil. Dis­card and start again if bit­ter – you don’t want to over­cook it. Drain on kitchen pa­per.

2 Get a small pan of water to a rolling boil. Add the lemon­grass outer stalks and any trim­mings from the makrut lime leaves to the water and gen­tly boil the fish un­til cooked (2-3 min­utes).

3 Set aside the fish and re­tain 1 tbsp of the boil­ing liq­uid.

4 Add the fish and salad in­gre­di­ents to a large mix­ing bowl. Com­bine the fish sauce, re­served cook­ing liquor and lime juice to make a dress­ing and add this to the mix­ing bowl. Toss to coat all the in­gre­di­ents without break­ing up the fish too much.

5 Plate and add the gar­nish­ings.

Chi­ang Mai-style beef laap Serves 4

350g beef (a cheaper steak cut such as skirt or feath­erblade is ideal)

50g beef kid­ney

1 gar­lic clove

Veg­etable oil, for fry­ing

1 large whole dry chilli

300ml light beef stock

15g palm sugar (or caster sugar)

30ml fish sauce

30ml fresh lime juice

For the laap pow­der

1 tsp small red dried chilli, toasted

2 tsp long red dried chilli, toasted

1 tsp cumin, toasted

1 tsp white pep­per­corn, toasted

1 tsp co­rian­der seed, toasted

For the salad

2 hand­fuls mint leaves, roughly sliced

1 hand­ful Viet­namese mint or laksa leaves (op­tional), roughly sliced

4 spring onion bulbs, smashed

2 stalks lemon­grass, in­ner parts very finely sliced (re­serve outer parts to flavour oil above)

1 Use a cleaver to chop the beef into rough dice, then chop through the kid­ney and the gar­lic clove.

2 Blitz the laap pow­der in­gre­di­ents with a spice grinder or crush with a pes­tle and mortar into a fine pow­der.

3 Heat a lit­tle veg­etable oil in a deep fry­ing pan or wok. Add the lemon­grass outer leaves and the dry chilli.

4 When the oil is bubbling, re­move the lemon­grass, gen­tly add the meat and stir to brown it. Add your home­made laap pow­der and quickly stir.

5 Add your stock and al­low the mix­ture to re­duce by half. Then take it off the heat and lightly sea­son with the palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice.

6 Com­bine all the salad in­gre­di­ents in a mix­ing bowl, then add to the pan. Quickly stir to warm through be­fore heap­ing on plates to serve.

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