Spices in the Southeast Asian cuisine are used as condiments to add a touch of spice to a dish or cooked in high heat alongside to ingredients. Spices are ultimately used in every Southeast Asian dish imaginable. It’s safe to say that if it’s not spicy, it’s not an authentic Southeast Asian dish. The word “spice” is such a broad category for this subject so I’m going to break it down to its rightful subcategories of 1) fresh spices, 2) dry spices, and 3) wet spices.
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So what makes a Southeast Asian dish so deliciously spicy that it hurts so good? Thai chili peppers. There you have it. Now you’re probably used to seeing cooking videos deseed peppers but not in Southeast Asian cuisine. I could never understand as to why one would deseed a pepper because of the preference of not wanting it to be too spicy? Then don’t use the pepper… period.
According to the internet, Thai chili peppers have Scoville level from 50,000 to upwards of 100,000, which is about 15 times spicier than an average Jalapeño pepper. Some come in the color green and some in red. The red Thai chili peppers are preferred for its high level of spiciness but not all red Thai chili peppers are created equal. Unfortunately, it’s a hit or miss with the spiciness, but you’ll just have to make due with what you have.
Thai chili peppers are usually sold in your local Asian grocery store or in local farmer’s market. Luckily for me, as I live in the heart of the Hmong community in St. Paul, MN – there’s tons of both. But if you live in the outskirts, I’m sure you can make work with ordering some Thai chili peppers from Amazon.
Thai chili peppers are typically sold in packs of maybe a good handful of 50-100 peppers (I’m estimating because I’ve never counted). When purchasing these Thai chili peppers, of course you’re not going to eat them all in a sitting before they start to go bad… you must freeze them in Ziploc Feezer Bags. So from store to Ziploc Feezer Bags is how I do it. When I need a few of Thai chili peppers, I rinse first and then use it.
Now that’s out of the way, you can use Thai chili peppers in any stir fry dish by cutting off the stem and then cutting it in half the long way. The reason for cutting it in half the long way rather than throwing a whole pepper in for cooking is to expose the seeds of the pepper to the dish for that next level spice. Southeast Asian cooking has a style of layering ingredient flavors to a dish. Typically, it’s oil and the holy trinity of ginger, garlic, onions – then, fresh Thai peppers… and whatever ingredients that come next.
I used to have an abundance of Thai chili peppers all year round when my maternal grandmother was alive. She would grow Thai chili peppers in her little backyard garden. My mother has her own garden, now that all of us kids have grown up, and a good reason for her to start since we won’t be trampling in her yard. She, too, would harvest Thai chili peppers and distribute it me and my brothers but she didn’t nearly grow as much as my grandmother did. So I would find myself purchasing Thai chili peppers at local grocery stores and Hmong farmer’s market.
Growing up, I would remember my grandmother using a woven bamboo basket to lay the Thai chili peppers that she harvested from her garden for full sun exposure. She would always tell us kids to watch out and avoid her basket full of peppers as we would run by it.
The Thai chili powders were probably crushed by using a traditional Thai Clay Mortar and Wooden Pestle, which is a staple tool in Southeast Asian cuisine. I, myself, own one as well, which I purchased from a local Asian grocery store but you can also purchase it from Amazon.
- Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp Hot Sauce | 2. Dynasty Hot Chili Oil | 3. Tuong Ot Toi Viet-Nam Chili Garlic Sauce | 4. Huy Fong Foods Sriracha Chili Sauce
Wet spices are often used as condiments to add additional spice to a dish. Sometimes more than one wet spice will be added so don’t be too surprised. Each wet spice has its unique texture or flavor whether it’s an oily flavor or garlic flavor and the texture of the peppers, it’s all preference.
Huy Fong Foods Sriracha Chili Sauce is the most popular among the wet spices, but all wet spices are typically used as condiments in Pho noodle soups and Kao Piak.
The two chili oils: Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp Hot Sauce and Dynasty Hot Chili Oil have its own rights in the overall Asian cuisine, not just the Southeast Asian cuisine, which you’ll find it’s commonly used in Chinese dishes as dipping sauce for wontons or pan fried noodles.
I used to cook stir fries using fresh Thai chili peppers but as I have kids who can’t quite tolerate the spice levels yet, I’ve refrained from cooking with fresh peppers. Although I do miss it a lot, I’ve been using more of the dry and wet spices as an alternative for that spice fix.
Recipes that use spices:
- Rice Porridge (Congee)
- Fried Rice
- Spicy Smoked Salmon Sushi Roll with Cauliflower Rice
- Spicy Tomato Pepper Sauce
- Spicy Kielbasa Sausage Breakfast