I love Thai chilies. They're cute. They're colorful. They're incredibly hot, bordering on incendiary. These bad boys will LIGHT. YOU. UP.
I have a warm spot in my heart for these chilies in my cooking (or it might be due to these, either way). Since these blazing peppers are so crazy hot I only need a few each week. When I go shopping at the farmer's market, I only pick up a few for various curries and stir fries I'll make for the next seven days' worth of meals.
Now I like to take heat, but like any average white boy I burn easily in every regard. When it comes to heat from the sun sun I don't tan, but rather turn as red as a crawdad in gumbo. This is followed by lots of peeling and freckling. I then bitch about this to anyone in hearing distance.
When it comes to heat in my food I like to think I learned rather well from my mom, the Tabasco Queen. She can put peppers away like no one's business; it's a trait I've strived to pick up. Still these Thai chilies are something else and more than four or five (seeds included) is too much for me.
When I first started going to the farmers' market I always did a bulk of my shopping at the Hmong produce stall. After picking out everything I needed I would toss a few (read: six, tops) chilies into a bag and ask how much. Whoever was behind the stall would just look at me, smile, and shake their head.
While I would normally be thrilled with free produce, the way I was waved off was upsetting. I wasn't getting enough chilies to even bother being charged. There was such pity in their eyes, their voices belied sarcasm and humor. They thought I was a wuss. When it came to taking the heat both in my kitchen and food I was a failure to them. My paltry sum of peppers wasn't even worth charging.
These were pity peppers.
However, since I loved these chilies' fire and flavor I would put up with it. Soon they recognized me and my pattern. Eventually whenever I came to their stall they'd just throw in a few peppers with my bag of lemongrass and opal basil. A prize at the bottom. No charge. I was cute, I suppose. The guy who likes to cook with only a few chili peppers was to be indulged. They'd laugh as they handed me the bag and gave me my change. I'd laugh with them, a bit irked by the encounter and at the same time amused. Free chilies are free chilies, after all.
It was only recently that I picked up a good tip to remedy my embarrassment. When I was shopping with cookbook author and friend Sheng Yang, an expert in Hmong cooking, she suggested I just buy a bunch and freeze them. "It's what most people do," she said.
By god, it was so simple! I could actually pay for the peppers and maintain a bit of dignity. No more, "Free." This wasn't about saving money, this was about saving face.
The next weekend I marched right up to the Hmong produce booth. After I filled a few bags with herbs and eggplants I handed them over to be weighed. The ancient lady behind the booth smiled at me showing the smile lines in her face, a lithograph of her life's laughter. She said hello and asked how I was. "Very well," I said. Her smile widened and she reached to grab a smattering of chilies. I raised my hand and stopped her.
She cheered as I plunged my hand into the produce box of colorful capsicums. I emptied two handfuls into a plastic bag and handed it to her. Her grin widened to match the one I was giving her.