The cuisines of Mexico, Southeast Asia, India, and the Caribbean all have one thing in common: they’re often quite spicy. Chiles originally grew in the Americas, so one wonders how they have infused themselves so seamlessly into some of these other cuisines. Spicy Thai food would be considerably less interesting if it had no spice, and the same is true for Indian food. Jerk chicken without chile peppers would just be grilled chicken. Yawn.
All of these places also have something else in common: Hot climates. It might seem counterintuitive to want to eat spicy food in a hot place, but there’s real purpose to the capsicum. Chiles, when you eat them, make you sweat, and when you sweat, your body cools off. Spicy food actually makes you feel cooler.
The whole point of the last two paragraphs is to convince you that you should be eating spicy food in the summer. You’ll save money on electricity by not using your air conditioner. After all, this is a column about being cheap and good to the environment. You’re welcome.
The only question you’re now faced with is what kind of spicy food you want to make. For that, let’s turn to Chef Andy Ricker and his quickly growing Thai food empire, Pok Pok. The chef has cleverly carved out a niche for himself by serving Northern Thai food. These are not the coconut-based curries we all know and love; these are intensely aromatic, often very spicy, intriguing combinations that we are only just learning about in this country.
Of course, you can find Northern Thai food here, but really only in places like Flushing, Queens or other ethnic communities. Chef Ricker is bringing this cuisine mainstream by catching the attention of food writers. And food writers are bringing it mainstream by supplying you with a totally awesome recipe for Northern Thai vegetable curry. Make it tonight for dinner and bask in the delicious, cooling heat of one of the world’s spiciest cuisines. You’re welcome.
Spicy Thai Curry
For the chile paste:
8 dried red chiles, broken into pieces
1 tablespoon dried shrimp (optional)
2 large shallots, chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro stems
2 fresh red chiles, such as bird’s-eye
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 fresh lemongrass stalk, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 cup water
For the curry:
1/4 cup oil
1/3 cup julienned fresh ginger
8 ounces green beans, trimmed
8 ounces baby corn
1 1/2 pound Asian eggplant, cut into 1-inch diagonal slices
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons fish sauce
Make the chile paste: Soak the dried chiles and shrimp in warm water to cover, 20 minutes. Drain.
Puree dried chiles and shrimp with remaining chile paste ingredients in a blender until smooth.
Cook the curry: Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over high heat. Add 1/3 cup chile paste (or more if you like very spicy food) and cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes.
Stir in ginger, beans, corn, eggplant, stock, and fish sauce and cover skillet. Cook vegetables until tender, 6 to 8 minutes, season with salt to taste, and then sprinkle with basil and cilantro leaves.
Serve curry with cooked white rice.
What's your favorite spicy dish? Tell us in the comments.