Cooking with hot chiles in asian cuisine
This article describes types of chiles used in Asian cooking, how to use them, and what precautions to take.
By Amy Levine
Chinese food, Korean food, and Thai food taste great: the flavors are bold and spicy, and the textures are terrific. The dishes are wonderful in restaurants, but when home cooks try their hands at Asian cuisine, they frequently complain that the food they make doesn’t have the same depth of flavor. Their Szechuan chicken is bland rather than bold, their Singapore rice noodles are weak, and their kung pao beef lacks punch. That’s because what many of these dishes require — and what many home cooks neglect to use — are hot peppers, or chiles. And chiles are often the key ingredient if you want your Asian cuisine to taste authentic.
The first step is choosing the right chile for the job. Many of us are familiar with the more popular hot peppers, like jalepenos and habaneros, but these are traditionally used in Mexican cuisine, not Asian cuisine. If you’ve ever ordered kung pao in a Chinese restaurant, then you’re familiar with kung pao chiles, also called arbol chiles or red chiles. These are usually found and used dried. Don’t let their small size fool you, because they’re intensely hot. Similar to these are Korean chiles: small, dried red peppers often used in Korean dishes.
Thai cuisine often includes chiles, and some Thai dishes are fiery hot. There are many varieties of chile peppers used in Thai cooking, but the two most common are the bird chile and the Thai chile. Unlike red chiles and Korean chiles, these are typically found fresh rather than dried. Bird chiles are very small and slender, either red or green, and usually less than an inch in length. They’re also incredibly spicy. Thai chiles are slightly larger, maybe an inch and a half in length. They’re also red or green, and somewhat less hot than bird chiles.
If you can’t find whole chiles, or if you’re afraid that using whole chiles will make your dish too hot, there are other options. You can often find chile pepper flakes in the Asian aisle of your culturally-conscious supermarket. These are made from dried chiles, and using them lets you control the amount of heat in your dish. You can also use jarred chili paste, which is a spicy concoction made with chiles, garlic, oil, and salt. Chili paste can be more versatile than actual chiles, as it’s ready to use without chopping or heating.
When selecting your chiles, there are a few things to look for. Dried chiles will last a long time, but they won’t last forever. When buying them, check to make sure they don’t look too old or shriveled. The color should still be bright. You want a dried chile that will impart a lot of flavor, not turn to dust as soon as you take it out of the packaging. For fresh chiles, you also want to make sure that the color is deep. Choose ones that don’t have any soft spots or shriveled areas.
When you’re preparing fresh chiles for cooking, you’ll want to take some precautions. Why? Well, that hot sensation that the chile leaves on your tongue can also affect other parts of your body if you’re not careful. If you have latex gloves around, it’s a good idea to handle fresh chiles while wearing them. If you don’t have any gloves, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and with soap before touching anything else. If you neglect to wash your hands and then touch any sensitive area of your body, like your eyes or nose, you’ll get a very bad burning sensation wherever you touch. Or, your fingers might start to burn. Treat any stinging area with milk to help alleviate the burn.
Fresh chiles are hottest closer to the stem. There’s also more heat in the seeds and the white membrane on the inside of the pepper. For a less intense hot, remove the seeds and white part.
In Asian cuisine, dried chiles are often used just for flavor and are usually not meant to be eaten whole. When cooking with them in stir fry dishes, add them to the oil before the other ingredients. The more dried chiles you use, the hotter your food will be. You can remove the chiles before serving, or you can leave them in. If you’re cooking for others, though, you may want to warn your guests not to eat the dried chiles.
If you do happen to bite into one of these dried chiles, try not to swallow it. To allieviate the intense burn that you’re undoubtedly feel, try eating a few bites of ice cream or drinking a glass of milk. Water won’t get rid of the sting, but dairy will get rid of the chile’s oil on your tongue.
Finally, when cooking with chiles, in Asian cuisine or in any cuisine, it’s best to go easy at first. All cooking is trial and error, but in this case, if you use too many hot peppers, you may end up with a dish that’s too spicy for you to eat. Once you get the right balance of heat and flavor, though, the Asian-inspired dishes you cook at home will taste authentic and be just as flavorful, if not more so, as those you get at a restaurant.
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