The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.
As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.
Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food. Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.
Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.
Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.
Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful: