Thailand food is more than just a beautiful sight, it smells wonderful and tastes even better. What’s the secret? It’s got to be the spices. In fact, Thailand is notorious for producing some of the hottest dishes in South East Asia; and, we all have the Thai “bird’s eye” chilli to thank for that which is a cultivar from the species Capsicum Annuum which grows on bushes up to 2 metres high throughout Thailand.
Almost every rural house in Thailand has at least one chilli bush Although there are at least 79 different types of chillies grown in Thailand one of the most popular is the small bird’s eye chilli that is used in a great many Thai dishes. Thai bird’s eye chillies are vibrant green when immature but will turn to a bright red hue once fully mature. Petite in size they measure on average only 3 to 5cm in length and approximately 0.5 to 1cm in width at their stem end.
This hot chilli pepper has a potent, lingering heat. When green its heat is immediate and intense, once at the red stage though they may at times have a delayed potency that grows in heat the first few minutes after consuming. Thai “bird’s eye” chilli peppers derive this nickname due to their unique appeal to birds who do not have pain neurons that humans do, hence they are oblivious to the intense spicy nature of this very potent chilli and they spread the chilli seeds when nature calls.
Additionally, in Thailand they are known as prik kee noo which literally translates to “mouse dropping chilli”, a reference to the petite size of the pepper. Don’t be surprised to see Thai people eating these fresh bird’s eye chillies whole. If you are not accustomed to eating hot and spicy food, do not try this! Apart from a key ingredient in many Thai recipes, freshly chopped bird’s eye chillies with fish sauce and lime juice is served with a multitude of Thai dishes. Bird’s eye chillies can also be dried out in the sun and then ground to make chilli powder or chilli paste. So, How Hot are Thai Bird’s Eye Chillies?
The system that measures the hotness of chillies is called the Scoville Scale named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville and it counts how much of a natural chemical called capsaicin (which gives the sensation of hotness) is in each type of chilli pepper. The least hot chilli is the bell pepper which scores 0 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) at the other end of the spectrum you have the World’s hottest chilli according to the Guinness Book of World Records; the infamous Carolina Reaper that is rated as an incredible 1,569,300 SHUs.
Apparently, in order to cook chillies with such an extremely high SHU score people have to wear chemical masks and a body suit! The Thai bird’s eye chilli is ranked at a modest 100,000 to 225,000 SHUs, a “light weight hot” chilli you may think but do not be fooled – they are blisteringly hot. We are still dealing with one of the hottest and spiciest things on Planet Earth. You do not want to scratch your eyes after handling these little yet menacing fruits!
Basic Guidance on Ordering Spicy Food in Thailand In Thailand the word for spicy (meaning hot) is PHET (pronounced PET)
The following are the range of options when ordering food in a Thai restaurant:
Not Spicy: Mai Phet
A Little Bit Spicy: Nid Noi Phet
Very Spicy: Phet Phet (be warned, this could blow your head off!!)