Spicy encounters in Bangkok

Anyone who’s traveled knows that leaving home and going off somewhere can alter one’s long-held perceptions of a place, of a culture, of people or even of yourself. It can be life-changing or it can be the simple, everyday stuff. This entry is on the everyday stuff. Something as simple as perceiving yourself as someone who doesn’t shy away from spicy food, for example.

You were raised by a mom from Bicol (the region in the Philippines that loves its chili pepper the most) who regularly cooks laing and Bicol Express (dishes with lots of chilies and coconut milk) and nannies who liked to snack on siling labuyo or bird’s eye chili on its own. (Not just to flavor a dish or have it on the side. But eat it on its own like peanuts.) One of the reasons you were actually looking forward to your trip to Thailand is because they eat lots of spicy food over there. Your kind of people!

Your first few meals subtly introduce you to Thai food with only a few dishes giving a pleasant heat to the meal. Then you and your sister decide to eat at Som Tam Nua, a restaurant in Siam Square with a permanent queue it seems and popular for its papaya salad (som tam) dish. CNN Go and friends recommend it so you eat there and order som tam, a fried fish, and what you thought was Pad Thai (it wasn’t).

Fried fish in Som Tam Nua restaurant

Everything is spicy. Even the fried fish seemed to have been fried in oil infused with a hundred chilies. But it’s delicious, especially when you eat it with a few mint leaves to counter the heat. And the som tam, while it looked pretty benign–a salad made of shredded unripe papaya, some slices of tomatoes, a few minced chilies–it packed so much heat my mouth felt like it was on fire. I would shove mouthfuls of rice along with every spoonful of som tam and fish, but after only a few attempts to conquer the spicy som tam, I surrendered. My sister though, soldiered on. I swear I saw tears welling up her eyes, but she just kept eating. I’m certain that if she paused, her brain would be able to send a signal to her mouth to stay shut and not take another bite. (Here’s her illustrated and amusing take on the spicy encounter.)

She actually kept ordering som tam in the different restaurants we went to afterwards and got to finish every single shred of papaya until faced with the som tam from Yum Saap, another restaurant in Siam Square frequented by locals. That harmless looking dish made her stop eating halfway and probably consider her tolerance for pain. The ordeal was made more difficult with the absence of rice. We did finish two glasses of Chrysanthemum juice each just to cool down our mouths.

Som tam from Yum Saap

Oh, Bangkok. Every meal was delicious, but there was always the hint of danger. Is it going to be spicy? How spicy will it be? Can I take it? Will I end up crying like a girl? Before the trip, I didn’t even have to ask these questions. Then som tam came along and I found myself conducting a pep talk in my head before trying another spicy dish or simply giving up after a few spoonfuls. Now I know: I like spicy. Just not very spicy and not for every dish in the meal.

Or if I refuse to be defeated, perhaps, I should learn to snack on some siling labuyo before I make another trip to Thailand.


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