Can you eat spicy?

It was lunchtime.  I walked around the corner to my local noodle soup shop.  They don’t just do plain old noodle soup, they have my favourite, tom yam, or in this case creamy tom yam with pork.  Delicious.

Now I’ve been going to this particular noodle soup shop for a while now, and I know that I like the food that comes out of there.  There is just the right amount of noodle:meat:veg:sauce ratio, you always get those yummy crispy pork crackling bits thrown on top and most importantly it tastes good.

I walk up to the counter ready to order what I always have.  It wasn’t the usual girl behind the counter and she didn’t understand what I was asking for.  She gropes around for a laminated picture menu reserved for occasions such as this and I point at what looks like my usual noodle dish.  She nods, now she understands what I was asking for in the first place.  And then she asks the question that us foreigners are so used to being asked in restaurants, and we are all a little afraid of being asked it in case it leads to a somewhat fiery situation;

spicy

Gin pet dai?  (Can you eat spicy?)

Dai ka!  …I can!  I replied with gusto, not thinking about the potential repercussions that this may have.   I eat this noodle soup at least once a week.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Unfortunately for me, when the girl behind the counter heard my eager reply, she took it as a personal challenge. Yes, I can eat spicy, but I am still a foreigner.  I’m wired up differently inside, doesn’t she know that?  

Barney Stinson Challenge Accepted animated GIF

The noodle soup was prepared and handed over to me in an assortment plastic bags (luckily for me this was a take away lunch so I wouldn’t have an audience for what was going to happen next).  I got a glimpse of the soup as it was put into a carrier bag and I could see that it had split, and a bright red layer of oil sat atop of my creamy tom yum soup.  It looked fiery as hell and definitely far spicier and less creamy than usual.   

I walked home, cursing myself for getting myself into this situation.  Yes, I can eat spicy, but spicy for me.  Not spicy on the Thai scale.  I wish I could say that in Thai.  Not that I would ever tell a vendor that I couldn’t eat spicy, especially when ordering a typically spicy dish – my pride couldn’t take the hit.  It would be like ordering a vindaloo and asking for it not to be spicy.  It just doesn’t work that way.

I got home and assembled my lunch.  Noodles, veg and pork balls slipped out of the first bag and into my bowl.   I fished out the bonus pieces of offal and gave them to one of the cats.  I took the second bag and observed how the sauce had indeed curdled from the pure hellish power of the amount of chili that could be found within.  I gave it a shake and poured it atop my noodles.  The hot, spicy steam rose from the bag and hit my eyes.  I now understand why mustard gas was used in warfare.  If how my eyes felt was anything to go by, my throat was about to go through it’s paces.  A third bag containing chili powder was left untouched.  Did she think I was some chili eating super woman?

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There was only one thing for it.  I’m not going to let a bowl of what is usually my favourite noodle soup go to waste.  Taking care not to take too much sauce, I took a mouthful.  The back of my throat seemed to close over in what can only be a survival instinct to save my insides from what was headed down there.  I swallowed, and coughed, mostly so I could gulp at the air around me in search of anything that didn’t contain this flaming concoction.  The first bite is always the spiciest.  I reassured myself.  I braced myself and went in for a second go.  Keep going, your mouth will get used to it.  Yes, my mouth was getting used to it, because all nerve endings were being obliterated by the burn of birdseye chili and tom yam paste.  

I persevered.  I fished out pieces of green vegetable and let the sauce drip off.  I took noodles and blew on them to try and ease the pain.  Nothing worked.  I had to admit defeat.  By this point my hunger was gone and I wasn’t sure if I even had a stomach remaining.  All I could feel was spice pouring from my every orifice.  My stomach burned, my throat ached and my eyes watered.  I was covered in a thin sheen of chili sweat and my lips felt like they had been pricked with a thousand tiny needles dipped in chili-laced acid.

It’s at times like these that I wish I could drink milk without feeling sick, but I can’t, so I made do with a bottle of cold water (yes, I am aware that this wouldn’t actually have helped me but needs must) and I waited for my spice ride from hell to come to an end.  In time, the spiciness subsided, but to this day whenever a food seller asks me that question I try my best to let them know that I can eat a little spicy, but not too spicy.  If in doubt, I politely shake my head and let them think that I can’t stomach it at all.  Anything to avoid getting myself into this situation another time.  Never again.

Video LOLs: Americans Try Thai Snacks

Once again my favourite source for time wasting and cat videos has come up trumps with a little video to help you to while away 2 and a half minutes of your time.  It will also give you a little insight into the day to day things that I have to go through as a picky eater living in Thailand.

P.S. Curry puffs and sesame nuts rock – omnomnomnomnom.

An ode to Yum Gai Sap.

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This is Yum Gai Sap, a fiery mix of breaded fried chicken (I never promised this would be healthy) mixed with raw shredded carrot, onion, tomato, cabbage and coriander (there’s your five a day right there, if mini Thai portions counted). This all sits in an effing spicy (that is the official culinary term) chilli/fish/lime sauce finished off with a dusting of toasted rice powder.

I have lived off of this stuff. It is the food of Gods (or, hungry TEFL teachers with little time). And at only 30THB, which is 60p, it is super cheap.

Some weeks I have eaten this four times in a five day period. I try to space it out with other food because it is effing spicy and often results in not only a spicy/oniony breath that doesn’t lend itself well to those close teacher-student moments but also a phenomenon that I and my fellow Yum Gai Sap addicts like to refer to as THE BELLY BURN. Ouchies. I think it’s the lack of rice that does it, there’s nothing there to soak up it’s effing spiciness. You can order it with rice but I STILL CAN’T EAT RICE FOR EVERY MEAL.

My first mission upon moving to Phuket will be to locate my local Yum Gai Sap seller. It may be a difficult find as I only know of two places that sell it, both of which are a stones throw the school that I am about to leave.

Oh, Yum Gai Sap, I will miss you.

The belly burn not so much.

Five for Friday – exploring food in Thailand

 Image copyright Google images

When I came to Thailand five years ago on a four week backpacking holiday, I seem to recall only eating either Pad Thai or Green Curry.  Whenever I go to the Thai restaurant back in Falmouth (big ups to Mali Thai – good food and bring your own booze – what more could you want?) I exclusively order Red Curry with coconut rice, oh and maybe some spring rolls.  But that is it.  Despite having been to Thailand myself, my Thai menu was limited to three things.

Now I am living over here, and I very rarely eat any of my three go-to Thai dishes.  In fact, it is almost impossible to track down a Red Curry where I live, and until recently I couldn’t find anywhere that would cook Pad Thai.  Over the past ten months I have been on a culinary adventure, starting off only being able to order one thing (Khao Pad Gai – chicken fried rice – for lunch again anyone?) until my fledgling Thai language abilities enabled me to begin to order new dishes which I soon realised tasted far better than what I had stuck to before.

Thai food is an attack on the senses with its combination of four key flavours; sweet, salty, sour and spicy.  Each dish will lean more towards one or two, but they are all there.  Sweetness is brought to you by spoonfuls of sugar, sourness with vinegar or lime.  Spiciness from chilies; red, green or yellow, and saltiness from nam blaa  – fish sauce.  It’s all about the balance of the four flavours – although the thought of eating fish sauce, which stinks to high heaven when being added to the stir-fry, may put you off – without it the meal wouldn’t quite taste right.  Once the dish is brought to your table you can further adjust the flavours by adding your own condiments from the table.  Usually there will be a pot of sugar, a sour chili sauce, chopped chilies in fish sauce and chopped green chilies in white vinegar.  Much like the salt and pepper you would get at home.

Thai food is widely varied and I haven’t touched the surface when it comes to sampling everything on offer, so here is my top five for food in Thailand, in no particular order.

1.  Pad Grapow Moo – stir-fried pork with holy basil and chili

I first tried this dish in a beach side restaurant on Koh Samui during my stay on the island for my TEFL training.  A few of us had gone to find the Grandmother and Grandfather rocks (see my post here for when I finally actually went to visit them again) but I was either tired or hungover or just lazy, because when I saw a hint of having to walk slightly uphill I opted out and found myself a seat overlooking the beach in a nice looking restaurant.  I wasn’t particularly hungry so I thought I would order something different just to try it.  It was really tasty and quickly became a firm favourite of mine from then on.  For a while I was eating this every other day, sometimes two days in a row.  We had found a restaurant in the village that we moved to and this was the only thing that we knew that they could cook for us.  It varies from place to place, sometimes using minced pork, other times thinly sliced instead.  Some places throw in some carrots too.  It’s usually served on rice with a fried egg, but as I don’t eat fried eggs I sometimes have a little omelette or nothing at all.  Pad Grapow is usually pretty fiery and the fragrance brought to it by the holy basil gives it a unique taste that I really love.

 

2.  Pad See Ew – fried noodles with dark soy sauce and vegetables

When I discovered that I wasn’t able to easily order Pad Thai, this quickly became my go-to for when I need that noodle fix.  Stodgy and filling, with a bit of green veg to boot.  Something I miss about Western food is the portion sizes.  The majority of your plate in Thailand will wither be noodles or rice – it’s a carb fest out here.  At least there’s not so much bread; I think that was my downfall back at home.  Portions of meat are small and I don’t mind that, it’s the equally small helpings of vegetables that I wish were bigger.  Anyway, I digress.  Pad See Ew can use a variety of noodles from wide and thick to thin and yellow.  I always give mine a helping hand with a spoonful of chili sauce.  This dish is particularly good when hungover.  It’s not quite a full English but it helps to soak up any leftover booze.

 

3.  Moo Klob – crispy belly pork with sweet Chinese sauce

I’m a lover of pork belly and this is the one way I am able to get my fix of roasted meat.  The pork is roasted, or maybe boiled, and then fried so it is a perfect mix of falling apart flesh and crispy fat.  The sweet sauce is a welcome change from the same-same-ness of many Thai stir-fries and at this particular shop you also get a serving of sweet Thai sausage which kind of has the consistency and appearance of a cured sausage like chorizo, but a completely different flavour.  Again, I spice this up; this time with sliced green chilies in white vinegar, which the owner of the food place seemed to suggest was the normal accompaniment.  We go to one particular food seller for this favourite, aptly named by us as Moo Klob shop.  The thing is with living in ‘real’ Thailand is that menus are written in Thai script so unless you can read Thai you have to use your spoken Thai and knowledge of what that particular place have on offer.   This place is owned by what I assume is a husband and wife pairing, and they are really lovely.  The first few times we went in they excitedly showed us which sauce went with which dish, and they took much enjoyment in offering Tom a bowl of tiny raw garlic cloves, “For spice!!” and watching him munch them down.  Safe to say our home was vampire free for the next three days!

 

4.  Khao Yum Gai Sap – breaded chicken with raw cabbage, carrot and onion, with a spicy and sour sauce, on top of rice

Another restaurant specific dish, this time brought to you by P.Noi, the lady whose food place (I suppose you can’t really call it a restaurant as it has no walls and bare earth as the floor) is right across the street from my school.  This is a one-woman-one-wok establishment and she cooks anything she has the ingredients for.  This lady is responsible for my first-tastes of many a Thai dish, including this one.  Actually, the first time I tried this I had seen a student with it on her plate and used what is probably my most useful Thai phrase to date – “…nee arrai ka?” – What is this? – I had never heard of this dish but I could see it was spicy, and the fact that it was mixed with lots of yummy raw veg instantly attracted me to it; it’s hard to get my salad kick out here without going to S&P and spending 150 THB (which admittedly is little over £3.00!).  You can order this dish without the rice by leaving the khao off the beginning as you order.

 

5.  Kai Teow Son Kruen – omelette stuffed with minced chicken/pork, vegetables and chili sauce

Compiling this list I almost forgot this beauty of a dish, mostly because I didn’t know the Thai name for it (I do now, thanks to Teacher Oh) and so only order it when (you guessed it) I go to one particular restaurant (a really good Muslim place opposite Lee Gardens in Hat Yai – they have a menu in English which is a rarity) or when I am with Thai people.  Some places don’t do this because I guess it’s a little fiddly.  It’s something that is definitely on my learn to cook list especially now I have a fully operational kitchen (even with a sink now that The Man has installed one!).  This is a thin omelette which has minced meat and veg (usually carrots, onions, maybe peppers – all diced nice and small) in a yummy, mildly spicy sauce placed in the middle.  The sides of the omelette are folded over the tasty filling and the whole thing is presented folded side down on a bed of rice so you have the pleasure of cutting it open and watching the tastiness ooze out.  (I need to get myself back to that Muslim restaurant ASAP!)

I’m not much of a food photographer (it is hilarious to see a table of young Thai people getting their food – they are so into social media that immediately iPhones and iPads come out to capture a picture of dinner, soon to appear on Instagram) but maybe for this post I will take a few pictures soon – watch this space.

This post was taken from my new blogging spot on Thailand’s #1 teaching website Ajarn.com.  To see these posts first subscribe to my RSS feed on the website.

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