A friend of mine asked me what my favorite spice is for cooking. I didn’t have to think long. It is Thai peppercorn, or, as we Thais call it, prik Thai. This most wondrous of all spices is known among non-Thai people as white peppercorn. Unlike capsicum or chili, which did not gain favor with Thai cooks until the 18th century and which punches you with its dramatic heat, white peppercorn’s pungent flavor does not jolt your taste buds. Instead, it embraces you with a warming sensation, while teasing your nose and the back of your palate. Once you begin to take notice of both its perfume and effect, it has already eased down your throat and chest, wrapping you in what seems like a warm comforting blanket.
You might ask, what is the difference between black and white peppercorns? The answer is simple. White peppercorn is the inner kernel of the peppercorn from which the outer layer has been stripped. Therefore, it tastes milder than black peppercorn.
In my first cook book, Cracking the Coconut, I wrote about Thai peppercorn and gave a simple recipe for making a seasoning paste I called the Big Four Paste. (pages 86-87) Pounded together with salt, garlic and coriander root with a pestle in a mortar, it is not only the most ancient seasoning used by Thai cooks, but is also a foundation from which other complex seasoning pastes such as curry paste emerged. The Big Four Paste can be made ahead in large quantity and stored in the refrigerator for a variety of uses from seasoning meat balls to stir-fries or marinades. Hamburger meat mixed with the Big Four Paste turns into a gourmet dish. Simply stir-frying vegetables with a bit of this magical paste creates an exotic dish evoking thoughts of a faraway land, and even the cheapest cut of meat or plain piece of chicken meat exude a mouth-watering perfume.
Thai cooks used Thai peppercorn not only for its flavor, but for its medicinal properties. This brings me to my latest cookbook, The Elements of Life, A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living. It is due to be released by John Wiley and Sons in October of this year. The focus for this book is the belief among Thai people that their food is medicine. Briefly described, natural taste, flavor and aroma in vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices are the keys to identifying their medicinal remedies. In the case of Thai peppercorn, the Thai people believe that it is good for the digestion, enhances appetite, relieves flatulence and re-energizes our body.
Before I share some simple recipes using Thai peppercorn, if you want to use it in place of black peppercorns, I suggest you dry-roast them first. This means you put about ½ cup of peppercorns in a skillet over medium-low heat and keep stirring them until you can smell the perfume. Transfer to a bowl to cool completely before putting them into the grinder. You can also buy fine white peppercorn powder in supermarkets. A shake or two over soup, noodles or scrambled eggs will stir your appetite.
Stir-fry Snap Peas, Tofu, Mushrooms
Makes 2 servings
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white peppercorns, dry-roasted
1 minced and peeled garlic clove, to make 1 teaspoon
1 teaspoon minced coriander roots (substitute with ¼ teaspoon coriander seeds and 1 tablespoon minced coriander stems)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
¼ cup thinly sliced onion
5 to 6 shitake mushrooms, thinly sliced to make ¼ cup
1 cup snap peas
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup cubed tofu
½ teaspoon sesame oil
In a mortar, grind the salt and peppercorn together with a pestle until puréed. Add the garlic and coriander roots. Pound until it becomes a paste. Set aside.
Heat the wok or skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Add the oil, lower the heat to medium and add the seasoning paste. Stir for several seconds, and then add the onion. Stir fry until the onion turn translucent. Add the mushrooms and stir fry until they turn soft. Add the snap peas and continue to stir until the color brightens. Season with soy sauce and add the tofu and sesame oil. Continue to stir until the tofu is warmed through. Transfer to a serving platter and serve hot with organic red rice.
Note: Some of my narration in the following video is unfortunately obscured by the sound of the pounding of my pestle in the mortar.
Elements Of Life: Important Information Update!
My newest book,The Elements of Life comes with a wheel that helps you determine your home element(s). Unfortunately, there are mistakes printed on the back of the wheel. Until the publisher can correct them, these are the right dates:
March 8, 1998
March 17, 2003
March 6, 2004
March 8, 1998
March 17, 2003
March 6, 2004