Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
I still remember the first time I ate something painfully spicy.
I was eight years old, and it was my birthday. My family and I were on vacation in South Carolina. Because it was my birthday, I got to choose where we would eat dinner that night, and I picked Thai.
So there we sat at some mall-bound, Myrtle Beach Thai restaurant as I proudly ordered the meal, including one fish dish that was written on a paper takeout menu in menacing red script. The waiter giggled as I ordered it, and asked me if I was sure that I wanted it, which is probably the most insulting question a person can ask an eight-year-old boy.
When the dish arrived, it looked benign--a bowl of yellowish, watery soup. In my young, American life, tastes were like traffic lights--only red meant danger--and so I was unmoved. I took one bite, and my eyes started to water. I took another, held back tears, and surrendered. The birthday boy spent the rest of the meal blowing bubbles in a glass of ice water. Everyone, staff included, sat there and laughed.
Today, twenty-odd years later, I was reminded of this. I was researching a story in Bangkok, and found myself on the less-traveled side of the Chao Pharya River, in Thonburi. In this prosaic part of the city, full of tattered used clothes markets and grungy car garages, there are a handful of Southern Thai restaurants (which aren't all that common here). I ate at the busiest one, called Ruen Thai. And unlikely as it may sound, that childhood episode came rushing back in a spoonful of gaeng som.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisely
Geang som is a thin, sour fish curry eaten in the south. Authentic versions of this dish are especially hot and sour, lacking the cooling qualities of coconut milk found in the rich curries of Thailand's Central Plains (and the kind of curries one usually finds in Thai restaurants overseas).