January 5, 2009

Addicted to the Pain

I never thought of myself as a masochist, but there's really no other explanation for my continued flagellation at the feet of som tom.

Ah som tom: cold, hot, sour, sweet. Here are the things I'm sure are in it: shredded green papaya, tomatoes, raw garlic, lime, nam pla, peanuts, green beans and, of course, the chilies. These ingredients are combined in sweet matrimony with a mortar and pestle and then eaten with handfuls of sticky rice (it's for the burning). The result is a combustible miracle of tart lime, cool vegetables, earthy peanuts and heat, lots of heat.

We've been eating it a lot—brought home in plastic bags from the night market, eaten alongside grilled chicken from a stall by the river in the middle of the day, or, well, pretty much whenever its available.

Today, I was in Ao Nang (a small beach town that serves as a launching pad for many of the better beaches near Krabi) and decided on a snack. I went to a street food vendor and ordered som tom. The woman seemed a bit peeved—it's labor intensive—but after cracking a few jokes about me in Thai with her coworkers who were peeling and deviening shrimp on the curb, she got over it. She held up a small red pepper. I replied, "Not too spicy." She held up the universal sign for "a little bit"—forefinger and thumb held close together—and cut the pepper in half.

When she brought me the plate I thought I was going easy on myself—hey, maybe it wouldn't be spicy enough!—but then I took the first bite. And started sweating. Then my nose started the inevitable drip, drip, drip. (Sulli has told me that her Thai co-teachers always laugh at her runny nose; the woman in Ao Nang laughed too.)

After the heat (finally) fades, all that's left is the hum of garlic, and the desire for more.

(For you Nashvillians, Siam Cafe on Nolensville makes a decent version.)

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