There are many health benefits when it comes to eating fresh, plump, juicy red chillies — a great deal of vitamin C, vitamin B6, and beta-carotene which translates in vitamin A after ingestion. There are, however, few ways to eat the red chilli. It has always sat on the peripheries of the culinary universe — as a seasoning, dipping sauce, or altogether avoided for its spice.
"The red chilli is more commonly used as a flavour element in Vietnamese and Asian dipping sauces," Vietnamese-American chef, Peter Cuong Franklin muses. More often than not, the chilli is always relegated to the side of the table in a small saucer. Otherwise, it is used in very small amounts to season mains. "I like to add a few freshly cut slices to my soups and remove the chilli after enough heat has been added to the broth."
In Thai cuisine, the fresh red chilli plays a similar role. Chillies are often used to inject spice into sides and mains. In Chinese cuisine, the red chilli plays a more prominent role. "One of my favourites is the Chongqing spicy wok-fried chicken with chilli." Over at the other end of the globe, there are "classic dishes such as Chile Relleno, a Mexican dish with cheese and tomato sauce".
"I think the chilli is less appreciated in Western cultures. But the popularity of the Huy Fong Vietnamese chilli sauce, which is becoming the new ketchup and used in many kitchens around the world, is starting to change people's perception of the red chilli." Same goes for the Sriracha, a sweetened chilli sauce from the Thai city of Si Racha.
There is so much room for culinary experiments when it comes to the red chilli. Take a larger red chilli, for instance, it is "mildly spicy, it is larger, with more pith. When grilled, it has a very pleasing sweet, spicy and smoky flavour." The spice is not found in the flesh, but the "seeds and the pith. It is best to remove them to remove the spiciness."
When prepared that way, the red chilli can be a main course on its own. In Vietnamese cuisine, the large red chilli is often stuffed with fish or prawn mousse. It is a dish commonly prepared by home cooks and "as a street food snack".
Cuong himself grew up "in a very small village in central Vietnam". His mother used to run "a small noodle shop" from the living room of their house. "Vietnamese cuisine is about freshness, balance and harmony with a unique combination of culinary influences from the French and Chinese."
Likewise with the red chilli stuffed with prawn mousse, "grilling the red chilli draws out its sweetness, spiciness, and smoky flavours — which pairs well with the sweet prawn mousse".
Here, Cuong's recipe for the red chilli stuffed with prawn mousse:
500 grams Medium-sized shrimps (peeled and deveined)
5 grams Salt
10 grams Cornstarch
5 grams Sugar
3 grams Black Pepper
20 grams Fish Sauce
1 Egg (lightly beaten)
20 grams Garlic (minced)
30 grams Shallots (minced)
15 grams Canola Oil
50 grams Pork Fat (minced)
20-30 Large Red Chillies (depending on size, ingredient can be substituted with red bell pepper)
1. Dice the shrimp and add salt, cornstarch, sugar, black pepper, fish sauce, egg, garlic, shallots and canola oil.
2. Blend in food processor until paste forms. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the pork fat, and place paste in the fridge for 30 minutes.
3. Slice red chillies in half, remove seeds and pith. Blanch in boiling water for about 10 seconds and put in ice water.
4. Stuff chilli with prawn paste and brush beaten egg yolk on top.
5. Preheat oven to 175°C, bake for four to five minutes until golden brown. Alternatively, pan fry, steam or grill if you do not have an oven.
Grill or pan fry the stuffed red chillies. Here, chef Cuong is using a hand-held blowtorch.
6. Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with the fresh herbs and nước chấm dipping sauce.
Optional: Serve the Red Chili Prawn Mousse with bun vermicelli noodles seasoned with nước chấm sauce.
Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
50 grams Fish Sauce
50 grams Sugar
25 grams Lime Juice
25 grams Water
1 Garlic Clove (minced)
1 Red Chilli (minced)
1. Combine all ingredients and mix well to dissolve the sugar.
2. The flavour of fish sauce and lime can vary depending on the brand. Taste the sauce and adjust to balance the savoury, sweet, sour and spicy to your liking.
1. Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with fresh herbs and nuoc cham sauce.
Chef Peter Cuong Franklin plating the quintessential Vietnamese snack, red chillies stuffed with prawn mousse.
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