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Thai Chili Pepper Scale: A Spicy Secret to Ordering Thai Food

Thai Chili Pepper Scale: A Spicy Secret to Ordering Thai Food

A spicy way to order Thai food…

I’ve been eating Thai food for like a gazillion years now and while I can order เผ็ดเผ็ด /pèt-pèt/ just fine, what arrives is almost never “up to me”. Tom Stephan has the same difficulties, only in a slightly different direction.

Tom: I wish I knew how to say “I’d like to order the Pad Thai, but moderately spicy. Not bland, but not number 5 on the scale. Maybe a 3?”

Me: A new one on me… I have the opposite problem – getting Thais to believe me when I say I want super spicy (especially as I don’t eat rice, used to cool down the mouth). I’ve settled on เผ็ดเผ็ด (and lots of praying to the pepper gods). Can’t you just say spicy a little bit? But all in all, what you get often comes down to the cook’s belief in what you can handle more than anything else.

Tom: Yeah, most of the time when you ask for spicy, the waitresses at the local Thai eateries (there are a dozen) kind of look at you like one regards a small child asking for his own glass of whiskey; adorable, but…no.

Thai chili ranges…

After chatting with Thai friends an easily understood chili range was agreed on. Number 1 being for (cough) (cough) wimps, with the chilis getting progressively hotter from there.

  1. Western style spicy: เผ็ดแบบฝรั่ง /pèt bàep fà-ràng/ (or not spicy: ไม่เผ็ด /mâi pèt/)
  2. A little spicy: เผ็ดนิดหน่อย /pèt nít-nòi/
  3. Moderately spicy: เผ็ดปานกลาง /pèt bpaan-glaang/
  4. Somewhat spicy: ค่อนข้างเผ็ด /kôn kâang pèt/
  5. Very spicy: เผ็ดๆ /pèt-pèt/, เผ็ดมากๆ /pèt mâak mâak/
  6. Thai style spicy: เผ็ดแบบไทย /pèt bàep tai/
  7. Super spicy (the most spicy): เผ็ดสุดๆ /pèt sùt sùt/


So if you want to take a stab at getting your Thai food at a hotness suitable for your tastes, you’d say something like this:

น้องๆ ขอส้มตำไม่เผ็ดหนึ่งจาน
nóng nóng kŏr sôm-dtam mâi pèt nèung-jaan
Waitress, I want one plate of somtam, not spicy.


ขอลาบไก่เผ็ดนิดหน่อยหนึ่งจาน
kŏr lâap gài pèt nít-nòi nèung jaan
I want one plate of mixed chicken salad, a little spicy.


ขอผัดกระเพราไก่เผ็ดปานกลางหนึ่งจาน
kŏr pàt grà prao gài pèt bpaan-glaang nèung jaan
I want one plate of chicken with basal leaf, moderately spicy.


ขอแกงเขียวหวานไก่ค่อนข้างเผ็ดหนึ่งถ้วย
kŏr gaeng kĭeow wăan gài kôn kâang pèt nèung tûay
I want one bowl of green (sweet) chicken curry, somewhat spicy.


ขอต้มยำไก่เผ็ดๆหนึ่งชาม
kŏr dtôm yam gài pèt pèt nèung chaam
I want one bowl of Tom Yam Chicken, spicy.


small bowl: ถ้วย /tûay/
big bowl: ชาม /chaam/


ขอผัดเผ็ดขี้เมาทะเลเผ็ดสุดๆหนึ่งจาน
kŏr pàt pèt kêe-mao tá-lay pèt sùt sùt nèung jaan
I want one plate of stir fried drunken seafood, super spicy.


When your Thai food is not spicy hot enough…

Thai Chili Pepper Scale: A Spicy Secret to Ordering Thai Food

Often (for me) a dish will arrive and it’s not spicy enough. It’s a good thing that most Thai restaurants have a condiment selection on the table.

Condiments: เครื่องปรุง /krêuang bprung/
Dried crushed chili: พริกป่น /prík bpòn/
Shrimp paste with oil: น้ำพริกเผา /nám prík păo/
Vinegar with fresh chili: พริกน้ำส้ม /prík náam sôm/
White sugar: น้ำตาล /nám dtaan/


If you can’t find what you like, you’ll need to ask the waitress. What you ask for sometimes depends upon the dish. But, as they say in Thailand, up to you.

I’m not fussy (I just want hot), so if there isn’t a chili pot on the table I ask for น้ำปลาพริกขี้หนู /nám bplaa prík kêe-nŏo/ (fresh mouse dropping chili and lime in fish sauce).


But if you want to be more traditional, here are a few dish/chili combos:

Papaya salad: ส้มตำ /sôm-dtam/
Ask for either พริกป่น /prík bpòn/ or พริกขี้หนู /prík kêe-nŏo/


Minced chicken salad: ลาบไก่ /lâap gài/
Ask for พริกป่น /prík bpòn/


Chicken with basal leaf: ผัดกระเพราไก่ /pàt grà prao gài/
Ask for น้ำปลาพริกขี้หนู /nám bplaa prík kêe-nŏo/


Green chicken curry: แกงเขียวหวานไก่ /gaeng kĭeow wăan gài/
Ask for น้ำปลาพริกขี้หนู /nám bplaa prík kêe-nŏo/


Tom Yam: ต้มยำ /dtôm-yam/
Ask for either น้ำพริกเผา /nám prík păo/, or พริกป่น /prík bpòn/, or พริกขี้หนู /prík kêe-nŏo/


To get what you want just say:

Waitress, I’d like… + your chili of choice
น้องๆ ขอ /nóng nóng kŏr…/


Spicy downloads…

If you are not confident enough to speak Thai I’ve prepared audio downloads. So all you need to do is stick the audio on your smart phone, and when needed, play your chili needs for your waitress. And pray.

Zip format: Thai Chili Pepper Scale
Zip format: Thai Chili Conversations

Good luck and good eating!

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

18 Comments

  1. Note: the lovely chili lass in the photo is not Thai. She’s Burmese.

  2. Catherine – I am very much in the pèt nít-nòi bracket although sometimes after a rush of blood I can nibble and pick at something pèt sùt sùt. Funnily enough I’ve just been reading on a forum site about how, so it was claimed, that Thai chefs in western bars and restaurants in Thailand don’t generally make dishes too spicy. The rule is that every new customer is a potential wimp, my word not their’s. They only do pèt sùt sùt is someone specifically requests it.

    I’ve tried lâap moo before and enjoyed it but never lâap gài, I much prefer chicken to pork and will ask Wilai to cook some. Pèt nít-nòi of course.

    This is my second comment. The first disappeared into nowhere after I hit a wrong key in error. I hope this one doesn’t duplicate.

    Keep chewing the cheddar and crunching the chilis.

  3. Martyn,

    Thai cooks take one look at us and go for broke (and not in the way some of us would prefer).

    “Keep chewing the cheddar”

    Ah, if there were any left (I’m afraid it’s gone for now).

  4. I must admit, before I started travelling at the ripe old age of 42, I never understood chili and being in pain while one ate. I was visiting another blog last night and mentioned that my tolerence has risen from a 0 to about a 5 on the chilidometer…10 being hellish for me and probably normal for most khon Thai. Toward the end of our year long stay I didn’t even specify pet nit noi when ordering food…unless they asked of course, if they ask, then it might be dangerous ;)

  5. Cat, great post and one needed by most travelers to Thailand. I’m much like snap in that I never really understood chili until I came to Thailand for a while…Now, when I eat, even in issan, I let them know to serve as they normally would and I’m fine with it.

    I have to take exception though with one tiny part of the post. “I want one plate of somtam, not spicy” this option doesn’t really exist and the only way I could even remotely see this being delivered to the table is just as a plain plate of shredded papaya…and som tam is still one of the things I just cannot stomach.

  6. Snap, I spent some time in Texas so I was used to chilis before I came. Jalapeños became a staple in my fridge (but even after all these years I still need a spell check ;-)

    I do notice that when I haven’t eaten chilis for awhile I can’t just jump back into to spicy hot without feeling the burn.

    Thanks Talen. I sooooo agree about the somtam. Friends have ordered it without too much spice and it’s awful. I’m not hugely fond of somtam because I don’t like little dried fish (and picking them out is a chore). I usually end up going for a few small mouthfuls of somtam (plus all the peanuts I can scrounge).

  7. Cat, that made me laugh…I’ve been known as a peanut scrounger too. Hot peanuts are good. Next time I’ll try ordering peanuts in somtam juice hold the somtam :P

  8. “peanuts in somtam juice hold the somtam”

    Talen, you just might be onto something there. Hot peanuts do taste rather good :-)

  9. When I first got to Thailand, my companion took me to get Nam tok and we ate traditionally(no utensils just sticky rice and your hands). He didn’t mention I should take my contacts out first. That was a painful half an hour trying to get them out.

    I found that as I learned to eat spicy I would tell them to make it pèt bàep tai, but it sometimes would take a couple of visits for me to convince them just HOW hot I really wanted it. Because of that I kinda stuck to my routine and would eat at the same 3 or four restaurants because I had built my reputation there.

    My favorite moment was when I was with a Thai friend and I ordered the food and it was hotter than he could take. He told me how embarrassing it was to be with a farang who could eat pèt more skillfully than him.

  10. Hi Cat,

    Thanks for another excellent post. It’s great to learn these phrases that can be used in everyday life
    but can’t usually be found in books. In other words, you just can’t look this stuff up.

    This is my first comment after reading your website for a long time. It’s always fun and informative.
    Thank you for all your efforts.

    I’ve found that somtam has its own chili scale from 1 to 4, as in

    “How many chilis do you want crushed into your somtam, 1, 2, 3, or 4?”

    I think you have to go for at least 2 to be respectable. 4 is pretty over the top.

  11. A great post Cat. Very useful and on one of my favorite subjects!

    As a child I used to watch my mom in utter fascination as she popped chili peppers in her mouth or just eat spicy until she was sweating and sniffing…

    I worked up my tolerance, not at home, but in the SW United States and after living here I’m sure my tolerance has climbed. I love spicy! I see it as a personal challenge…maybe I’m like my mom after all! 555

    Somtam forever :P

  12. Gaelee, welcome and thank you :-) I too find it odd that some books don’t cover the basics of what we need to use in the practical world. And even if they do, I’m never able to locate them on time!

    Ta Lani! I see it as a personal challege as well. Spicy food… durian… they are all a part of enjoying what Thailand and SE Asia has to offer.

    I’ll bet your mom has great stuff to share about chilis. I went walking around several markets trying to get answers so I just might have a follow up post to this one.

  13. Hi Catherine,

    I really like your Thai phrases. They are definitely useful for any visitors to Thailand. The pronunciation is very clear too. I already sent your link to a few friends.

    I have just one thing to add on the phrase

    nám bplaa prík kêe-nŏo. I’d say that most Thais simply
    call it nám bplaa prík. Some people also say prik nam bplaa.

    Keep up with your great posts!

    ThailandBreeze

  14. Thanks for your kudos! I agree, the shorter version is more common :)

  15. Hi Catherine,

    Nice post! Congrats.

    Just one question, how I say “no chili”? I would like to make it clear that I don’t tolerate hot at all. I’m afraid “mâi pèt” is not enough for me. :-)

    Kind regards

  16. Hi Gonzalo, I’ve never thought of needing that sentence :)

    Try this:
    ไม่ใส่พริกเลย
    mâi sài prík loie
    Don’t add any chili at all.

    Good luck!

  17. Hi,

    Yes! This is what I were looking for!

    Thank you so much for your quick answer

    Regards

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