If you’ve ever tasted a Schezuan, Thai, or other Southeast Asian dish and come away with a just slightly sweet-noted burning that spread through your entire mouth without feeling greasy or cloying, chances are good you’ve just had an encounter with the phrik khi nu. Literally the “mouse dropping chili.” We Westerners have chosen to instead call it the “bird’s eye” pepper, possibly because of its resemblance to an African chili of the same name.
Heat for Health
Bird’s eye peppers are among the hotter of the world’s peppers — about on par with Tabasco and Long Jalapeño — and with all that heat comes dozens of health benefits. Researchers at the University of Tasmania discovered that regularly eating foods for dinner that contain capsaicin affects the sensors in your brain that control your sleep cycle. You’ll sleep slightly less and wake up more alert if you make cooking with bird’s eye peppers a regular thing!
Capsaicin isn’t just for the drowsy, either; it’s also been proven to lower blood pressure, decrease “bad” cholesterol in the blood, and reduce the size of the plaque deposits already lining your arteries.
Not only does capsaicin reduce your appetite, but it’s also been shown to tell your body to burn fat rather than sugar, making it easier to lose weight when you exercise. It also makes your body “run hotter,” increasing your body temperature by as much as a few degrees, meaning your at-rest calorie burn increases as well.
Let the Heat in
Obtaining bird’s eye peppers can be easy or difficult, depending on where you live. If you’re on the West Coast, it’s generally just a jaunt down to your local Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, or other Southeast Asian specialty food store. In Olympia, Washington, there are no fewer than four such restaurants within a twenty-minute drive.
If you live somewhere that doesn’t have the same concentration of Asian imports, you may have to look in the Asian sections of your local big-time grocery store and hope, or order them online. Just be careful you don’t end up with African bird’s eye peppers by mistake; the difference in taste is profound! I’ve tried the dried peppers from this vendor and they’re spot-on.
The romantic bird’s eye pepper can bring the fire into your food — and your kitchen — if you let it. Don’t be afraid of a little heat. Just treat with caution (and gloves, while you’re seeding them) and you’ll find that this exotic little fruit will change the way you cook.
General Tso’s Chicken Sauce
- 1/2 cup cornstarch (or rice flour, as above)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 tbsp minced ginger
- 1/2 tbsp minced garlic
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup soy sauce (Tamari is best)
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar (white in a pinch)
- 1/4 cup shao hsing cooking wine (or mirin or cooking sherry, in order of excellence)
- 1 cup strong chicken stock
Mix and refrigerate until ready to use. Shake or stir immediately before use.
General Tso’s Chicken Meat
- 3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, chopped
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 egg, well beaten
- 1 cup cornstarch (or rice flour)
- 2 cups green onions, sliced thinly
- 8-12 bird’s eye peppers, seeded and chopped roughly
Mix everything except onions and peppers together in a bowl until sloppy and chicken is coated. Deep fry in nonflavored or sweet oil — I use grapeseed, but the adventurous can try coconut oil, if you’re both awesome and can afford that much coconut oil. If you don’t have a deep fryer, you can deep fry in a few inches of oil in the bottom of a wok, though this takes a lot more attention and time. Drain on paper towels, and if you’re doing it the slow way, store in a warm oven to keep crisp.
Once the chicken is nearing done, put a teaspoon of oil in your wok — I use peanut, but coconut, palm, or even sesame are all good, and plain old vegetable will do in a pinch. Heat until the oil ripples, then throw in the peppers and green onions. Stir three times, then pour your sauce (above) in. Cook until it thickens (and have half a cup of chicken broth ready to thin it out if it gets too thick).
Spoon chicken onto plate and pour sauce over chicken; serve alongside steamed rice and veggies. For an extra special presentation, sprinkle toasted black sesame seeds over the top just before service.
Thom Kha Gai
- 2 cans coconut cream (coconut milk works if you can’t find cream)
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 6 quarter-sized slices ginger (or galangal if you can get it!)
- 2 bird’s eye peppers, seeds removed, minced.
- 2 limes’ juice
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon curry powder (Indian is better than Japanese)
- 8 oz white mushrooms, thinly sliced or minced
- handful Thai basil cut into thin ribbons
- handful cilantro roughly chopped
- 1 lb chopped chicken (optional)
Mix chicken stock, coconut cream, lemongrass, ginger, chilies, lime juice, curry powder, and fish sauce and bring to near-boiling. Add chicken and simmer 10 minutes if you’re using it. Add mushrooms and basil ribbons and simmer 5 more minutes. Remove lemongrass and ginger with a slotted spoon. Serve garnished with cilantro.
Sweet and Spicy Orange Chicken Sauce
- 10 Tablespoons rice vinegar (white works in a pinch)
- 10 Tablespoons white sugar
- 4 Tablespoons soy sauce (Tamari is best)
- 1 Orange, zest and juice
- Seeds (only!!) from 4-6 dried Bird’s Eye peppers.
- 1/2 cup chicken broth, cold
- 2 tsp cornstarch (rice flour works if you’re trying to avoid GMO foods)
Mix all ingredients except broth and cornstarch in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Mix cold broth and cornstarch in a cup until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Remove sauce from heat and vigorously stir broth mixture into sauce. If you used rice flour, bring back to a boil; if not, serve immediately over stir fry, deep fried chicken chunks, or as a dipping sauce for egg rolls.
Photo Credits: Takeaway, Daniel Risacher, and The Lovable Wolf.