Before I left Canada, I hadn’t eaten a great deal of Thai food. I couldn’t even remember the Pad Thai that I had sampled while traveling in Thailand 8 or 9 years ago, and when I asked my friends what kinds of Thai food they liked, they tended to recite the tourist-friendly list that I referenced here. In other words, I wasn’t sure what strange new foods I’d be consuming on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t expect my primary food group to be a bizarre combination of unripe papaya, peanuts, fish sauce, chillies, and dried shrimp – otherwise known as Som Tam. Or that I would salivate like Pavlov’s dog at the mere mention of those two syllables…
Som Tam is a traditional Thai salad. In addition to the aforementioned ingredients, it also contains cucumber, green beans, tomato, and a heapin’ helpin’ of sugar.
Our favourite Som Tam vendor is located across from Todd’s school, and we usually visit her 2-3 times per week. She is an indomitable woman, which is a good thing, because Todd gives her a list of customizations that would fell a lesser soul.
The list goes something like this “Only half a chili. No, the smaller half. Still too much! No sugar. No palm sugar. No cane sugar. No sweet. Little fish sauce. Dried shrimp in one bag. No, only one bag. Too spicy.” etc, etc. Except that Todd jumps on the tonal bandwagon and tries to say it in Thai, with mixed results. His attempt to say “not sweet,” for example:
“Mai Wan.” Didn’t register. “mAAi wan.” Nope. “maaaai waaaan.” etc. I give the man credit for trying. Som-times he succeeds brilliantly.
I always thought that I was “good” at eating spicy foods until I moved to Thailand. I can just manage half of a large chilli in my Som Tam, but some of the other farang teachers can allegedly handle 3 or 4. While this blows me away, it is still pathetic when compared with the level of spice that most Thai people enjoy/demand. They probably wouldn’t stoop to eating Som Tam that contained less than 3 or 4 handfuls of chillies, for fear of permanently dulling their palates.
Spicy or not, I can’t stay away from this strangely wonderful mixture.