|Tania Nathan is a Chinese-Sri Lankan Malaysian who loves her food and is often to be found rummaging through a freezer somewhere in Hakaniemi. Come say hi!|
Most people might think that food from afar has only one kind of heat – the type that sears your taste buds and renders you semi-conscious. This of course, is not true. So how do you employ spices and chillies in a way that flavours your food without overpowering the palate? Read on gentle reader, read on.
*note – Chillies differ from Chile. The latter is a fruit of a plant while the other is most certainly a country of the South American variety! For the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the chillies used in Asian cookery.
Long and dark red sometimes almost black, dried chillies have a strong and smoky flavour and a longer, more intense kick than fresh chillies. To use, crush or chop into segments and remove seeds for a lesser burn. You can also soak and grind dried chillies if the flaky skins bother you.
Dried bird’s eye chillies
A pretty fiery kick, dried bird’s eye chillies are often sold as “extra hot” chillies. Caution is needed when using these babies – fry alongside aromatics and remember to crush before adding to your dishes. No one wants to bite into one of these guys. That would be a night to remember for sure.
Fresh green chillies
A floral, refreshing flavour alongside the heat. Use green chillies in fish dishes and with eggs. Green chillies have a kick but can be more flavoursome compared to red chillies. Remove the seeds and the white membrane from the inside to utilise the flavour without the heat.
Fresh red chillies
Long and lethal looking, red chillies can differ in heat levels. In my experience, the red chillies that are available from normal grocery stores in Finland are less spicy than the ones from Asian stores. Nevertheless, red chillies can be used in cooking, chopped and served in soy sauce as an accompaniment to Chinese food or as a garnish. Its flavour is floral and sweet and the heat varies from chilli to chilli.
Scotch Bonnet chillies
Lethal yet fruity, the scotch bonnet chilli may look like a miniature bell pepper but it will take the top of your head off! Use them stews, to make hot sauces, tomato-based sauces, African dishes, with lentils or meat dishes, its uses are endless! Just remember that if you haven’t used scotch bonnets before, handle with care. Cut with gloves on, or holding the stem with a pair of kitchen scissors. The base of the chilli is usually the mildest while the seeds are the hottest. Do not use the whole chilli in your dish if you aren’t accustomed to spiciness! The flavour of the Scotch bonnet is delightful however, and gives a lovely fruity flavour and intense spicy kick to dishes.
Mouth numbing and with a slow intense burn, this variety of pepper is not your normal peppercorn. Use the dark ruby husks of the Szechuan pepper as an integral spice for Mapo tofu or in fish dishes. It can be “activated” by frying with aromatics and then simmered in sauces. Be warned however, the slow burn of the Szechuan pepper is totally addictive but will burn twice as much the day after.
Bird’s eye chillies
A relative newcomer to the Asian chilli scene here in Finland, this chilli is intensely floral and also wickedly hot. It immediately sears the taste buds but imparts a long and sweet finish. Use sparingly, best as an accompaniment to food in a side dish, chopped with care. With chillies, the smaller they are, the hotter!