The base of a good Thai Tom yam soup is a paste called Nam prik pao or Thai Chilli paste made from roasted garlic, chillies, shallots and as with many Thai base recipes dried shrimp. A commercially made paste is available and perfectly acceptable but I think for the most vibrant authentic taste it is best made fresh ingredients.
8 large Banana Shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
200 gr Galangal, peeled and sliced
100 gr Dried Shrimps, soaked overnight in a little water
50 gr Light Brown Sugar
8 Lemongrass, peeled and chopped
6 tablespoons Tamarind Paste
4 tablespoons Rice Wine Vinegar
3 tablespoons Vegetable Oil
400 ml Water
Heat the oven to 375 F / 190 C / Gas mark 5. Place the shallots, galangal, garlic and chillies on a tray and drizzle with the oil, place in the oven and roast for forty-five minutes until soft and caramelised. Remove from the oven, allow to cool and place in a food processor. Drain the shrimp and add along with the lemongrass to the roasted shallots and spices. Blitz to make a paste. Place the paste, sugar, water, tamarind paste and vinegar in a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to the gentlest
simmer, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning, and reduce the mixture until it becomes smooth and thick. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Store in an airtight container or sterilised jar in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
If you really like heat do not remove the seeds or any membranes from the chillies.
“Nutmeg must be able to smell the sea but cloves must see it”
Cloves are a spice that come from the flower buds of a tree originally from Indonesia and are a common ingredient in savoury and sweet recipes in Asian, African and Middle Eastern cuisines. The unopened flower buds are harvested twice a year and then they are dried in the sun. Cloves have a warm, pungent aroma which many people associate with Mulled Wine and Christmas with notes of camphor and pepper. Cloves have a strong, pungent, flavour, and too many can be overpowering. Cloves can sometimes leave a numbing feeling in the mouth due to the active ingredient eugenol and are why people use oil of cloves if they have a toothache.
Cloves were only grown in Indonesia until the eighteenth century when Frenchman, Pierre Poivre, carried seedlings to Mauritius where the seedlings flourished. The plants were then introduced into the East African coast, which is now the largest producer of cloves. The saying “Nutmeg must be able to smell the sea but cloves must see it” is because cloves grow best on islands or near the sea. Cloves can be used either whole or ground in Chinese cooking, apple recipes, traditional baked ham, and pairs well other spices like allspice, bay, cardamom, cinnamon, chillies, fennel, ginger, and nutmeg. Cloves are one of the spices in Garam masala and Chinese five spice.
Star anise is instantly recognisable as the star-shaped spice which is used in many Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Indian dishes. The pods can be used whole, broken into pieces or ground down to a powder and are a key ingredient in Chinese Five Spice. Star anise has a delicious liquorice like aroma and a sweet aniseed flavour which is delicious with fish, chicken, pork and root vegetables. Star anise is often used in combination with other spices and aromatics such as chillies, cinnamon, coriander seeds, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass.
Star anise is the fruit of small, green magnolia trees which are native to South-west China and can bear fruit for 100 years or more. Star anise has been used throughout Chinese history for its culinary and medicinal properties and is still valued in cough syrups and to provide relief from flatulence. The Japanese used to burn the aromatic bark of the tree for incense. Star anise started being used in Europe from the seventeenth century to flavour syrups, cordials and preserves and is still used in western countries today to flavour drinks, and confectionery.
Garlic is one of the most popular aromatics used almost worldwide because of the flavour adds to dishes. Raw garlic has a very pungent, hot taste that mellows and becomes sweeter when cooked. Roasting garlic gives it a lovely delicate, nutty flavour. Propagation is by placing a single clove in the ground, for this plant to reach maturity will take around five months depending on the growing conditions. It is best to grow garlic in a sunny location that is well drained. Garlic is a major ingredient in Asian influenced dishes such as stir-fries and curries, as a classic flavouring in Mediterranean cooking for soups, sauces and casseroles and pairs perfectly with onions, tomatoes, chilli, ginger, basil, chicken, pork, and seafood.
Slaves building the pyramids were given garlic to give them strength. The first workers strike then occurred when, to save money, the garlic was removed from their diet. During World War I soldiers depended on garlic for its antiseptic properties and it has been used for a long time to fight colds and coughs. There is an old Spanish proverb that says, “where you find garlic, you find good health.” The same chemical that gives garlic its pungent aroma reacts with bacteria in your mouth that cause bad breath. A good way to counteract this smell is to eat parsley or to drink milk while you are eating the garlic.
In cooking, we can use all of the coriander plant, its leaves and stems, the seeds and the roots and each has its own distinct flavour. Coriander is native to the Mediterranean but is used in cuisines throughout the world and is an essential ingredient in Thai, Mexican, Moroccan and Indian cuisine and is found as the fresh leaves, roots or the spice from the ground down seeds in classic curries, salsas, stir-fries, tagines, and fajitas. Coriander pairs well with chicken, beef, chilli, lemongrass, garlic, mint, fish sauce and soy sauce.
Coriander is an annual plant grown from its seeds. There are references to coriander in the Old Testament of the bible and they were found in the tomb of the legendary Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. In the past coriander has been used to treat migraines and indigestion to help purify the blood and to relieve nausea, pain in joints and rheumatism. The dried seeds have a sweet and spicy flavour while the leaves of coriander are zesty, with a strong citrus and peppery flavours. Coriander leaves are best added at the end of cooking or as a garnish on dish as high heat can quickly discolour them and kills the fresh flavours.
Many Tex-Mex, Cajun and Asian recipes contain chillies in various proportions to add from just a little kick to a beer swilling, throat ripping heat. Chillies are one of the earliest cultivated crops and come from the south-west of the Americas. Christopher Columbus called the chillies ‘ peppers ‘ after the taste similar to the black and white peppercorns already used in Europe. Travellers were often in search of new sources of spices due to their immense rarity and value. The chilli spread through many of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies to particularly to Mexico, Goa, parts of China and Indonesia. Chillies can be served sliced and diced raw, or dried and flaked or ground to a powder.
Chillies are all part of the nightshade family of plants some common variations are the red and green Bell peppers ( green are simply unripe bell peppers ), Cayenne, Jalapeño*, Anaheim, Serrano and Poblano peppers ( which when dried are the Ancho pepper ) these collectively are Capsicum annuum peppers. Capsicum frutescens are the family of hotter chillies including the Piri piri, Tabasco and African Birdseye chillies. The hottest chillies are the Habanero, Scotch bonnet and Naga chillies from the Capsicum chinense chilli family. Chillies are high in Vitamin C, Potassium, Magnesium and Iron but do not add greatly to the overall nutritional content of a meal because of the relatively small amounts in a dish.
* The Chipotal pepper is a variety of smoked then dried jalapeño
Chillies come in many varieties here are just a few examples;
Sweet and Fresh – have distinct vegetal aromas reminiscent of freshly cut red bell peppers and fresh home grown tomatoes, Costeño, dried Anaheim, California or Colorado and Choricero peppers.
The Hot Ones – Can be like Cascabels with some complexity and depth of flavour or others like the Pequin or Arbol,which are all about heat.
Dried / Smoky – Some chile peppers, like Chipotles are dried and smoked Some are naturally just dried like Ñora or Guajillo used to make a mild salsa for tamales.
Rich and Fruity – Have distinct aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. These include some of the best-known Mexican chiles, like Ancho, Mulato, and Pasilla.
When preparing, try to handle cut and chopped chillies as little as possible. Many chefs wear disposable latex gloves. Wash and clean any equipment that comes in contact with the peppers thoroughly. The main active constituent in the chilli is the naturally occurring chemical Capsaicin. ( It is now the main ingredient in pepper spray and some animal deterrents ). The majority of the Capsaicin is found in the seeds and pith, if your not a fan of chilli heat remove these before preparing your chillies.
Chilli ‘ heat ‘ is measured in Scoville Heat Units, I’ve listed a few varieties of chilli pepper and their SHU to give you an idea of the scale and the relative strength of commercial available peppers. Interestingly some of the the hottest chillies in the world have recently been grown not in Mexico or Asia but in Grantham and Poole in the UK.