There are people who should really be called chile abusers--ask anybody who's ever been to a chili cook-off or watched a chile-eating contest. But people who actually like to taste their food usually like chiles too, and in countries where peppers are an integral part of the cuisine, they're nearly always in the majority.
These traditional cuisines show the many ways chiles can be used to create exciting dishes that are not mere endurance contests. It's all a matter of imagination and balance. These are some of our favorite hot dishes.
\o7 I first tasted Thai food on my first visit to Los Angeles. It was 1973 and my friend Bruce took me to a little place on Hollywood Boulevard. We had a bright pink soup called yen ta fou and Thai noodles, and I thought it was all just about the most delicious food I'd ever eaten.
There were no Thai restaurants in Berkeley, where I then lived, so I set about trying to recreate the food. This wasn't easy. I knew I needed limes and cilantro and chile peppers, but until Bruce sent me a bottle of fish sauce, I was stumped.
This is the recipe I eventually ended up with. It's a far cry from real pad Thai--richer and much heavier on protein--but it's become one of my favorite dishes. I like it with a lot of chile flakes.
1/2 (7- to 8-ounce) package thin rice stick noodles
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 pound small to medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
1/2 pound ground pork
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons red chile flakes
6 green onions, cut lengthwise in halves and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup peanuts, chopped or ground
2 limes, quartered
1 bunch cilantro, leaves only
Sriracha hot sauce (available in Thai markets)
Soak noodles in hot water 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Heat peanut oil in wok over high heat. Saute shrimp until just pink. Remove and set aside.
Add pork and garlic to oil in wok and cook, stirring constantly, until pork loses pink color. Add drained noodles and toss quickly.
Mix fish sauce, sugar and vinegar and add to wok. Cover and cook until liquid is absorbed.
Carefully lift noodles and break eggs, 1 at time, into wok. Cover and cook until eggs are just set, then mix into noodles. Add shrimp, green onions and chile flakes, mixing carefully. Remove to large platter and top with peanuts. Surround with quartered limes and cilantro.
To eat, diners squeeze fresh lime over noodles and mix in cilantro leaves and hot sauce to taste. Makes 4 servings.