Tuesday, January 27, 2009
A New Love
I've been slowly falling for Thai food and fell head-over-heels in love recently after a backpacking trip. My end-of-hike tradition is a cheeseburger and a beer. You wouldn't believe how quickly you can hike ten miles when a cheeseburger awaits, but this time I chose a spicy dish from Titaya's that simply blew my mind.
I'm white. Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, and Curries are the only things I have ordered. Even when I ask for a new and spicy dish, the server takes one look at me and selects a similarly unadventurous dish. Like many times before, I asked for something new and said that I ate anything and wanted to try a new flavor, especially something spicy. When the plate arrived, it was Pad Kra Prao: stir-fried shrimp, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, basil, and Thai chilies in a thin but plentiful brown sauce. These flavors were familiar. No kaffir lime or exotic meats. So I guess the server listened to me--sort of.
I was disappointed until I tasted it. Boy howdy, It was spicy. Like instant allergic reaction spicy. And with the heat came flavor, which is weird for me. My family tends use cayenne pepper sauce liberally and everything tastes like cayenne. This spice was different. It amplified other flavors around it, much like Szechwan peppercorns--only hotter. Much hotter.
Half way through the meal my burning lips had had enough, but my tongue demanded more. I had never eaten so much of something so hot. I was happily pushing my boundaries simply because I couldn't get enough of the taste. When I finished, my nose was running, my lips swollen, my head felt warm from a surge of blood to the capillaries, and I didn't know whether or not I was going to vomit.
It was incredible. I felt high. The peppers had heightened taste, smell, and the ability to know exactly at which angle my head was. The people asking for painful spice levels I once rolled my eyes at started to make sense. Once you reach a certain level, you transcend ordinary pain and ride a wave of endorphins. A heat-seeking classmate once described the experience as one of panic where you wonder if you should call your mother. I now want that but not just pure spice; that wouldn't provide the same experience. There has to be a flavor explosion as well as a heat explosion.
I immediately walked over to a bookstore and purchased a Thai cookbook and have been busy cooking since. This will be a lifelong love affair, and I'm sure you'll hear more soon.
*Photo by Garry Knight