The Burn of Spicy Food

Two decades after his first taste of a painfully hot dish, the author tries Thailand's spiciest cooking.


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.

The birthday boy spent the rest of the meal blowing bubbles in a glass of ice water. Everyone, staff included, sat there and laughed."

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).

Unlike Central Plains curries, gaeng som is very simple to make. It's usually flavored with tamarind, chilies, galangal, gapi (fermented shrimp paste), shallots, tumeric, lime juice, and sometimes black pepper. Fish and potatoes, pineapple or bamboo is added to the soup. I've eaten gaeng som dozens of times in the south, but something about this particular dish--perhaps it was the color, or the unforgiving intensity of its sharp, sour heat--sent me straight back to childhood shame. I'm pretty sure I ordered gaeng som so many years ago.

I sat with the kind owner of the restaurant, Khun Achara, who has been cooking Southern-style Thai curries in her humble location for 29 years. And she was delighted to feed me. That day, her staff had prepared about 15 curries, a half-dozen dips, and a few soups that sat behind the counter. At Ruen Tai you just point, shoot, and sweat.

The best thing I ate was pad phet sathor, which was a spicy wet curry of pork, chilies, shrimp paste and a stinky bean called sathor (those green pods you see hanging in the front of her shop--that's them). Sathor is a fixture of Southern Thai cuisine, and when eaten raw has a caustic bite that probably screamed "Watch out!" to the first brave souls that ate it. Cooking tempers this effect, but the beans are still bitter and sulfuric--like a mouthful of Brussels sprouts and bottle rockets.

But when combined with other ingredients--fragrant shrimp paste, perfumed lime leaves, lemongrass, chilies, coconut milk and pork--the end result is strangely delicious.

As I chatted with Achara, I slurped careful spoonfuls of the gaeng som, which was cooked with fluffy chunks of fresh mackerel and crisp slices of pickled bamboo. My eyes started to bulge, and my forehead beaded with sweat. She refilled my plate of herbs and crisp cucumbers--cooling companions to what is regarded as Thailand's spiciest school of cookery.

Ruen Thai is located at 375/4 Thanon Phran Nok, Thonburi,+66-2-411-0842.

(For an easy and beautifully illustrated recipe for this dish click here. Thanks to Austin Bush.)