Chilies

In the five hundred years since Europeans discovered chilies in the New World, these spicy pods have become one of the defining ingredient categories of Southeast Asia. They are bold and diverse in flavor, and they’re amenable to lending their flavor, color, and heat to nearly limitless incarnations. Pounded into pastes, sliced and floated in fish sauce, crushed into salads, or minced and added to soy sauce to punctuate foods with that fiery bite, they have become indispensable throughout the region. Each variety has its own flavor, level of capsaicin (the compound that determines heat), and implicit function. To reduce the heat of a chili, cut out the seeds and inner white membrane (also called the ribs), since these components contain the majority of the capsaicin.

Although hot chilies are sometimes used interchangeably, most recipes call for a specific variety. The reason may be color, thickening properties, spice level, or the floral note that a given chili contributes. Speaking of floral, most cooks in Southeast Asia leave the “crown”—the base of the flower bud that connects the stem to the fruit. It adds a special aroma. But these chefs do snip off the stem. The list that follows represents the most commonly used chilies in Southeast Asia, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list.

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