Soups, salads and curries emblematic of Thai cuisine call for Thai chili. Ground into a paste, sliced as a garnish or added to stir-frys, this essential ingredient fires up your wok and livens up your taste buds. When the original is not at hand, suitable alternatives include other varieties of chili in fresh and dried forms, as well as chili-based preparations from the grocery store.
Know Your Thai Chili
Thai chili -- or “prik kee noo” in Thai -- is also known as bird’s eye chili or bird chili due to the hook-like shape it takes while drying, which is reminiscent of a bird’s beak. Slender and thin-skinned, its color goes from green to red as it matures. In spite of its small size of only 1 to 3 inches in length, Thai chili packs a serious bite. It is considered extremely hot, rating between 50,000 and 100,000 units on the Scoville scale, which is 12 to 20 times hotter than jalapeno.
Other Fresh Chilies
Fresh Thai chili is used as a garnish, sliced or pounded into dips or added into soup or stir-fry. When Thai chili is not available, it can be replaced by fresh cayenne peppers, in particular the very hot red variety that comes out towards the end of the growing season. Jalapeno and serrano peppers can be more readily available but they are not as hot, so you may need to adjust quantities accordingly.
Dried Chili Pepper
Whole dried Thai chili peppers are used to make pastes such as curry paste or chili stir-fry paste. Alternatives include dried cayenne peppers or chili de arbol, which is named after the woody stems attached to the pods. When in doubt, go for the hottest Mexican whole peppers available. Dry chili in the form of dried and crushed or powdered red chili peppers will also work, but must not be confused with chili powders that contain a mix of spices.
Chili Sauces and Pastes
Chili-based preparations available in grocery stores can also substitute for Thai chili. In particular, hot sauce can replace ground chili in recipes where fresh or dried whole chilies are not required to add bulk to the preparation. Another alternative is a chili-based ready-made paste, including green or red curry paste, as well as tom yum paste, which serves as a basis for hot and sour soup. These handy products keep well and are easy to use, but they contain additional ingredients and seasonings that can influence the taste of your recipe.
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