Orange Habanero

As you know, I love chilies. When Kenny and I were browsing the produce section at the Princeville Foodland a few days ago, he asked me which chili I’d like to have on hand to spice up our morning eggs. We declined the jalapenos and anaheims (not spicy enough), but Kenny remembered from a past conversation with a purveyor at the Seattle farmer’s market that habaneros were supposed to be among the spiciest chilies out there. We decided it would be good to have 5 or 6 of the teeny little guys around.

That evening, we cooked up some quinoa to make a salad, with a few diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro, carrots, local oranges, olive oil, and a few squirts of lime juice. Kenny told me that he would start with “just two” habaneros – we could always add more if the salad wasn’t spicy enough.

We were in for a bit of a surprise. The salad was so spicy that we almost couldn’t eat it. Almost. It may have even been spicier than Sumalee’s 6-star spicy mango salad (though probably not). But it was also amazingly delicious, in that it-hurts-so-much-to-eat-it-but-I-can’t-stop sense. Kenny reminded me that there’s a reason for this spicy food behavior, which explains why I find chilies so addictive. According to this site (which will also teach you more than you ever wanted to know about the chemistry of spiciness), eating chilies induces a certain amount of pain, which triggers the brain to release endorphins in order to ease the pain, creating a kind of chili-induced high. It turns out that we chili fiends are basically drug addicts.

There’s also a way to quantify spiciness, known as the Scoville Unit, and as a result there is a general ranking of chilies by hotness. You can check out a nifty chart with the rankings here, ranging from sweet bell peppers (not spicy), all the way up to the naga viper, which recently beat out the infinity chili to earn the Guinness World Records title of world’s hottest chili. The verdict: the habanero (meaning from Havana) is basically the spiciest chili that’s readily available in grocery stores and the like. The naga viper is apparently an unstable hybrid incapable of reproduction, and likely won’t be making its way to the Princeville Foodland anytime soon.

Orange habanero
Fiery orange chilies – they are tiny in size, but not in flavor

Spice Up Your Life

Armed with our newfound knowledge from yesterday’s spice tour, we spent the morning in Darajani Market acquiring some take-home scents of Zanzibar. The first few shops we walked by were staffed by aggressive hawkers that were all selling the same touristy-labeled packets of ground spices.

Further away from the market center, on a quiet street far removed from hawkers (and bloody cow parts), we stumbled across a shop with barrels of ground and whole spices available in bulk that reminded me a bit of Roopak in Karol Bagh. We were able to browse in peace, and then put together a small stash of coffee, vanilla, whole nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and ground chilies (which was nothing compared to the local who arrived just after us with a long shopping list of large quantities to fill).

Now all we need to do is think of the best uses for these spices when we get home…cardamom-vanilla bean ice cream anyone?

Kenny with potential purchases
So many spices…how to choose?

Spices
Bulk spices

Cinnamon
Cinnamon

Why is Western Veg Food So Boring?

During our stays in India and among Burmese people in Thailand this year, Kenny and I have often observed that vegetarian food is so much more interesting – and delicious – in communities where eating meat is not the norm. In the case of our South Indian friends, the refusal to eat meat stems from religious observance, while for our Burmese friends (especially the tribe with whom I was working), it’s simply a result of the high price of meat. Both cuisines feature some of the best vegetarian food I have ever consumed.

This observation was reinforced several times this week, when I heard many of my carnivorous friends proclaim that South Indian cuisine has revolutionized their idea of what non-meat food could be. All of the meals we’ve eaten in Bangalore – especially those at Archana’s parents’ house – have been spicy, varied, and spectacularly delicious. South Indians just make incredible use of lentils, beans, whole grains, tomatoes, okra, coconuts, jackfruit, chilies, and even plain old potatoes.

What a contrast after the steamed broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower that were often served as a side dish in London and environs. Bleh. Even Seattle, which features a relatively creative restaurant scene and a plethora of ethnic restaurants, is fairly boring on the vegetarian front. I’d kill for a real South Indian restaurant.

Rarn P Dam

Rating:

Across the street from P Nik’s, and next to the CP Fresh Mart, is my favorite Thai food vendor in Mae Hong Son. The setting is basic, though on the larger end for a rarn ar harn dtarm sang, and the food is fantastic. It’s run by a friendly Thai lady, P Dam, and her family.  She serves all of the Easy Thai dishes at their finest, and the lunchtime the operation is a sight to behold. Customers come up and give a verbal order, and somehow P Dam keeps all of the requests in her head, even when the queue is more than a dozen people long.

I’ve been going to Rarn P Dam for lunch almost every weekday since I discovered it, and I’m usually the only farang eating there. P Dam also knows that I like spicy food, so I can be assured of ample chilies. Unfortunately, Rarn P Dam is not open for dinner, and they are closed on Sundays, so Lauren wasn’t able to try their food for a few weeks (she lunches with her NGO during the week).

Over Songkran I was finally able to introduce Lauren to Rarn P Dam, and since then we’ve been going for Saturday lunches and the occasional weekday breakfast. All of the dishes are 25-30 Baht (less than $1), the vegetables are fresh and generously portioned, and P Dam is an ace with the wok.

Today, in preparation for this writing, I finally found out the name of my “Thai food stall across from Nik’s.” If you are in Mae Hong Son, you should definitely pencil in a lunch or two at Rarn P Dam. Lauren’s family ate here three times while they were visiting, and I’ll be stopping by for my daily fix until we leave next week. Yum!

P Dam at work
P Dam frying up pad thai sen yai

Assembly line for a bulk order
The happy family at work on a bulk lunch order of pad kra pao moo

Rarn P Dam
Fresh ingredients on display

Pad Thai sen yai jay
The best pad thai (sen yai) I’ve ever had

Pad kra pao jay kai dao
Pad kra pao jay kai dao (spicy vegetables with chili, basil and a fried egg on top), my favorite dish at P Dam

Pad see ew Kao jeow
Pad prik geang Pad kra pao jay
An assortment of other dishes available for 25 Baht

Lauren enjoying pad kra pao kai dao
Lauren enjoying her first P Dam experience

Rarn P Dam
SE Corner of Singhanart Bamrung and Phadit Joncume
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Daily: Breakfast, Lunch (7:00AM-4:00PM)
+66 (0)84-3688533

Hot Hot Hot

One of Lauren’s NGO co-workers has a pet phrase, “hot hot hot” (it’s always three “hot”s). It’s usually said with a smile, and can refer to eating really spicy food, handling hot chapattis (or other hot items), or the weather on extreme days.

While today’s forecast was revised downward from a brutal 46°C to a mere 42°C, I still managed to have a few “hot hot hot” experiences of my own:

  1. The lady at my favorite Thai food stand is getting familiar with my love of spicy food. Today she added spices for my noodles to the wok while she was frying them, rather than giving me the normal Thailand experience of “spice it yourself” noodles. Turns out that two scoops of pounded chilies in your noodles are much spicier when they’re added up-front to the frying pan! They were my first five-star-spice noodles in Thailand and they were delicious (though my tummy is still burning).
  2. This morning I heavily roasted a pound of peanuts, and after lunch I went through my normal peanut butter making process. However, it turns out that roasting peanuts for a half-hour not only makes them delicious, but also makes them harder to grind (they don’t release as much of their natural oils). When I was done, I almost burned my fingers wiping the extra peanut butter off of the grinder blade.

Green mango and homemade peanut butter
The extra-roasted and finely ground peanut butter came out looking like melted chocolate and the roasting gave the taste some distinct coffee overtones

Chilies!

I really like spicy food, but my wife takes the love of chilies to a whole new level. She has her standards, and one could even argue that she is obsessed with spiciness. I learned one possible reason why, when reading a side-bar on the menu at Tamarind in Luang Prabang:

Why is there such a love of chili worldwide? Because when we eat them, our bodies product a natural high or ‘”chili buzz.” Lovers of hot and spicy food are probably addicted!

The chili pepper is an amazing fruit (yes, it is a actually a fruit). Some Burmese would starve without them, and their use of chilies may explain why they don’t get sick when eating their unrefrigerated leftovers:

Rich in Vitamin C, they [chilies] act as natural preservatives. Drying chilies concentrates the natural sugars and intensifies their flavors, and dried chilies give sauces complex flavors and spiciness.

In case the chili wasn’t impressive enough, I was recently informed that India is planning to use their spiciest “ghost chili” (which we sampled in Bangalore) to make eco-friendly hand grenades!

Lauren likes chilies
Lauren loves chilies

Easy Thai

While living in Thailand, we’ve discovered the amazing phenomenon of “Easy Thai” (the phrase came from the back page of a menu at Rom Jinda, one of the few restaurants we frequent that actually has an English menu). “Easy Thai” is a set of dishes that can be found at just about any rarn ar harn dtarm sang (“food to order” stall) in town, whether they advertise it or not. It is a subset of Thai food that consists primarily of stir-fry dishes, mostly served khao rad (over rice), including:

  Pad Prik Giang   Stir-fried with red curry paste, Thai eggplant and lime leaves
  Pad Kra Pao   Stir-fried with chili and basil
  Pad Thai   Rice noodles fried “Thai style”
  Pad See Iw   Wide rice noodles with morning glory and other vegetables
  Kratiem Prik Thai   Stir-fried with garlic and pepper
  Pad Mit Monmuang   Stir-fried with cashew nuts
  Pad Prik   Stir-fried with fresh chilies
  Pad king   Stir-fried with ginger and mushrooms
  Kai jiao   Thai omelet with tomatoes and onions

You can also specify the base of your dish, otherwise you will likely wind up with pork (the usual default):

  Jay   Vegetables
  Moo   Pork
  Gai   Chicken
  Ta-hoo   Tofu

For noodle dishes, you should request the width of the noodles: sen yai (wide), sen lak (medium, fettuccini-width), or sen mee (thin, vermicelli-width). Otherwise you may get a surprise when your Pad See Iw shows up sen mee.

Finally, frequenters of Easy Thai often add other modifiers, such as kai dao (with a fried egg on top), pet prik (spicy), or sei gong (to go). It’s kind of like ordering coffee in Seattle.

Easy Thai has become a staple of my lunch-runs, as it is cheap, fast, fresh, and delicious. At a rarn ar harn dtarm sang, an easy Thai dish runs 25-35 Baht (~$0.75-$1; meat and fried eggs can add a few Baht to the cost). My current favorites are pad prik giang, pad thai sen yai, and pad kra pao. I’ve never seen pad prik giang on menus at home, but when I return to Seattle I’ll have to ask Jamjuree if they’ll make it for me!

Pad Thai sen yai jay
Pad Thai sen yai – a delicious new twist on an old classic

Pad kra pao jay kai dao
Pad kra pao jay kai dao – spicy vegetables with basil and a fried egg

Bon Kitchen

Rating:

When we were last in Chiang Mai for orientation, Lauren looked at TripAdvisor’s restaurant recommendations, even though they are usually a bust for restaurants. While most of the top-rated spots sounded underwhelming to us, the number one restaurant at the time got raves for fresh, tasty, organic food. Bon, the owner, was frustrated with the difficulty in finding healthy Thai food without MSG, so she decided to open her own restaurant to fill that gap.

Enter Bon Kitchen, a small, informal restaurant with simple decor and some of the most artfully presented food in Thailand. Our first dinner there consisted of a spicy three mushroom salad and penang curry, both of which were delicious. The mushroom salad was a variation on yam talay, with mushrooms instead of seafood. We ordered our penang curry “spicy,” and Bon delivered. Her penang had a generous portion of kaffir lime leaves, a modest hand on the coconut milk, and used a homemade curry paste that is Bon’s family’s recipe.

During AJWS orientation in February, we took the other volunteers to Bon Kitchen for a huge family-style meal, where we got to sample most of the food and fruit shakes. While some people raved about the chicken teriyaki, for Lauren and I, the great new discovery was the wing bean salad. We ordered ours with tofu instead of pork, and really enjoyed the sweet and smoky dressing of tamarind, and burnt chilies. A sprinkling of peanuts on top added extra joy and crunchiness. The rest of the dishes were good, but not in the league of the spicy three mushroom salad and penang curry.

This afternoon, even though it was just the two of us, we had to order all three of our favorite dishes for a mid-day feast. They were just as delicious as we remembered, and we lingered over the meal and took advantage of Bon’s free wi-fi. Overall, we’ve enjoyed a lot of tasty, and artfully presented food, at Bon Kitchen. Definitely stop by when you’re in Chiang Mai, we always will!

Kenny enjoying a fruit shake Lauren enjoying her fruit shake
Enjoying fresh fruit shakes before our meals

Spicy mushroom salad
Spicy three mushroom salad

Wing bean salad
Wing bean salad with tofu in a tamarind, coconut, burnt chili dressing

Penang curry
Penang tofu

Organic brown rice
Beautifully presented organic brown rice

Bon Kitchen
71/10 Sridonchai Road
Chiang Mai, Thailand
+66 08-7800 5410

Daily: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

A Thai Seder

Last night Lauren, Daniel, and I had a small seder for the second night of Passover. We had to improvise most of the logistics, from a downloaded Haggadah to various ingredient substitutions. We used bitter gourd as our maror, and a fried chicken leg from the night market as our pesach.  I made a charoset of green mangoes, chilies, sugar, and peanuts, continuing my recent tradition of holiday cooking prep at P Nik’s.

Hard-boiled eggs, salt water, and leafy greens were easy enough to come by, and Daniel completed our menu with some supplies he picked up from the Chiang Mai Chabad:

  • 3 bottles of kosher wine
  • A monster box of matzot, imported from Russia

After finishing the pre-dinner ceremonies with a spiced up Hillel sandwich (awesome with the mango charoset), we had our main course: a big salad using our bounty from the Sunday market. As the youngest seder attendee, Daniel not only had to read the four questions, but he also had to hunt for the afikoman in our 100 square foot apartment!

For dessert we prepared a tropical fruit salad of yellow and green mangoes, oranges, and bananas. We also had some of Nik’s strawberry jam on top of the afikoman matzah. While not your typical Maxwell House seder, we covered all the Passover classics, and swapped family traditions and songs. It was a very enjoyable second night of our rice-free week.

Seder plate
Seder plate with chicken leg Pesach, bitter gourd Maror, Thai charoset, local spring onion karpas, and hard boiled egg

Daniel with matzah
Daniel showing off the huge box of Russian matzah he acquired in Chiang Mai

Lauren, Kenny, and Little Vid
Little Vid helped us prepare the seder plate

Passover party
Our seder – Haggadah on the Kindle, food, wine, and reclining on the floor