Chilli's complicated history

Where did this most indispensable Thai cooking spice originate?

Red cayenne pepper.

Thai food without chilli is not Thai food. Despite its significance in Thai cuisine, there are many questions that remain unanswered about chilli. How did chilli first arrive in Thailand? What kind of chilli was it? How many chilli species do we have now? Which one is most popular? Do Thai people consume the highest amount of chilli in the world? These are questions many people want to explore.

First, there is no proper record as to when chilli first arrived in Thailand. But broadly speaking, chilli might have hit Thai shores in the 15th century when Portuguese traders came to the Eastern world to do business. They disembarked at several port cities in the Middle East, India and Malaga. They reached Thailand -- then Siam -- during the early Ayutthaya period.

At that time, the city of Ayutthaya was a trade centre. Ships from China and Persia stopped here, sold and bought materials to trade.

It is believed that chilli was among the merchandise brought here by Portuguese traders from the Americas. Apart from chilli, they also brought spices from India, Persia and Malaga.

It may have been just dried chilli that was traded. Dried chilli in Siam was purchased by the Chinese, who took it back to their own country to sell. This is why a number of towns in China also consume chilli.

That was an assumption with regard to the arrival of chilli in Thailand. No one knew what kind of chilli was first brought. People might later grow their own chilli, using chilli seeds. But what was chilli for? During the Ayutthaya period, there were certain palace dishes such as saeng wa, or prawn salad, that was flavourful but did not use chilli.

Chilli was believed to have been used but not quite popular. It reappeared in a piece written by Sunthorn Pu, the greatest poet during the reign of King Rama II, who mentioned chilli and salt as an ingredient for venison. He did not say what people did with the venison, though. That's how chilli appeared again -- over 100 years since the Ayutthaya period.

Bird’s eye chilli.

Orange chilli pepper.

Chilli was mentioned in a royal cuisine cookbook titled Tamrab Sai Yaowapa, which was published 78 years ago. The book listed the varieties of chilli available at that time, which included Bang Chang chilli, bell pepper, bird's eye chilli, pumpkin-shaped chilli, cherry pepper, white pepper and so forth. The book also contained recipes but only Bang Chang chilli and bird's eye chilli were used.

Dried chilli.

Bang Chang chilli has its origin in Samut Songkhram. People in the old days relied on Bang Chang chilli as seen from recipes in various cookbooks. It is a large cayenne pepper with thin skin and thick meat. When dried, Bang Chang chilli gives a moderate level of spiciness, suitable for making chilli paste and chilli dips. However, Bang Chang dried chilli was later dominated by other types of cayenne pepper. Also people stopped growing Bang Chang chilli because the areas were washed by seawater. So the chilli sort of disappeared. Only 10 years ago people began to grow it again. They found various cayenne pepper species and bred them, giving birth to a new variation that is quite close to Bang Chang chilli. They named it Man Bang Chang chilli.

Today's chilli are new breeds that aim to satisfy people's taste buds. People call chilli different names, some call it by the place of origin. Some call it by the area in which it is grown. New chilli variations include yellow cayenne pepper or Bang Bua Thong chilli, white chilli that looks like sweet pepper and bird's eye chilli that is longer. We also have Bang Sor giant chilli, Jinda chilli, hua rue chilli, huai si thon chilli, karen chilli and many more. These varieties aim to respond to the demand of the market and the chefs. Despite all these new breeds, certain varieties are rarely seen and used such as white pepper, pumpkin-shaped chilli and cherry chilli.

Cooks need a comprehensive understanding regarding the use of chilli. Certain types of dishes use certain types of chilli. For example, spicy stir fried clown knifefish balls with string bean only uses pounded orange chilli pepper. Nam prik kapi (Thai shrimp paste chilli sauce) only uses small bird's eye chilli. But if we are to make pad kraprao (stir fried holy basil dish), we must use large bird's eye chilli. Red cayenne pepper is used for deep-fried fish with sweet-and-sour sauce. Nam prik num (northern-style chilli paste dip) will never use bell pepper because it will lose some spiciness.

Spicy stir fried clown knifefish balls with orange chili pepper.

Acacia salad with dried chili.

For noodle condiments, ground dried bird's eye chilli would be ideal. But for chilli vinegar sauce, different types of chilli are used for different types of noodles -- ground green bird's eye chilli for beef noodle, sliced yellow chilli for fish ball noodle, sliced green and red cayenne pepper for pork noodle and ground red cayenne pepper for yen ta fo (pink noodle soup).

This is the story of chilli, starting from when it first arrived the Kingdom. After a long period of silence, chilli has become a superpower. Now Thai cuisine is widely recognised by people from all over the world. They might not know every dish, but what they know very well is that the spiciness that comes from chilli is Thailand's national flavour.

Spicy stir fried fish.