Culinary Adventures: Thai Food

Couples Travel, Food & Wine — By on April 12, 2012 at 9:17 pm
Bamboo Hot CurryBy Gina Douglas
Special to Lost Girls

“I’ll also take an order of the nachos, please,” I said and handed my menu to the server, avoiding my amused fiancé Tom’s eyes.

I reached for my Singha beer and took a sip of it. In doing so, I made the mistake of looking at Tom. He was smirking back at me.

“You couldn’t go three weeks,” he said and shook his head in mock disapproval.

“I couldn’t help it!” I protested. “They were on the menu, begging me to order them.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, unconvinced.

“And…I really just can’t eat another bite of Asian food today,” I muttered, half expecting the travel police to show up and arrest me for uttering such a sentence.

Tom and I were in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand. We had been traveling for two weeks and my resolve to eat like the locals was starting to crumble. However, as I was about to remind Tom, I’d come a long way.

As a southern California girl, I’d become accustomed to avocados, tortillas, black beans, and grilled cheeseburgers as my daily meals. I ate Asian food very rarely – I never got cravings for it – and actively disliked Thai food. I didn’t like the spices in Pad Thai, glass noodles weirded me out, and curry was too spicy. Friends always tried to drag me to Thai restaurants claiming I just hadn’t tried the right thing yet. When I announced my trip, their first question was “what are you going to eat?”

I pointed out to them that I am a brave, well-rounded traveler and…well…there’s always McDonald’s (shhh, don’t tell anyone I said that). Typically, I am against any type of American fast food establishment while traveling, but I was actually a bit concerned this time.

Turned out, Thai food is much better in Thailand. Imagine that. As a co-worker asked when I was getting ready to leave for the trip, “Uh, what do they call Thai food in Thailand? Just food?”

By keeping an open mind – and having a fiancé willing to trade dishes with me if mine was too spicy – I found Thai food I loved.

The first Thai food I had in Thailand was Tom Yum, a broth based soup with vegetables, shrimp, and lots of floating red peppers. I was able to take three sips of it. Afterward, my mouth was on fire for thirty minutes. After that, I ordered the dishes that the locals told me weren’t spicy at all (i.e. still spicy).

My love affair with Thai food officially started during a trek through the mountains of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. After battling my way up a mountain and thanking God I had decided to exercise for the first time in my life and do Pilates for the past year, I made it to the mountaintop bamboo hut that would be my home that night. The trek’s guide, Ti, disappeared into one room of the two room hut and before long, smoke started curling out. I poked my head in and saw Ti and a local village woman leaning over a huge wok stirring a concoction of chicken and vegetables. Thirty minutes later I was sitting at a long table in front of a bonfire, the darkened outline of the mountains etched in the distance behind me, and dished up one of the best dishes I’ve ever had, which Ti said was chicken curry. The flavor was slightly sweet with just the right amount of spice and cream flavor undertones. I poured the curry over white rice and dug in, eagerly going back for seconds. If this was what homemade Thai food is like, I could definitely be converted into a Thai food lover.

With that meal in my mind, I was ready to let loose my taste buds on more Thailand dishes. The next day in the city center of Chiang Mai, Tom and I passed a small Thai restaurant with trees lining the perimeter of the patio and a soothing dining room indoors. My muscles were in agony from the trek and it looked like the perfect place to relax in the busy city and have a cup of tea and bite to eat. The black pepper and garlic chicken immediately stuck out at me, since it’s not what I think of when I picture Thai food. It arrived and I ate every last bite, enjoying the different spice taste of this entrée – tangy from the black pepper instead of hot from red pepper – infused with roasted garlic chunks; realizing that Thai food is so much more than Pad Thai and curry and becoming happier I kept an open mind on this trip.

It was in Ko Phi Phi that I ran into a problem. The island is exotic, relaxing…and extremely touristy – which resulted in Western food tempting me from every corner. Despite my new-found love for Thai food, my body still craved a cheeseburger or steak taco – anything possibly artery-clogging. And that resulted in not just the nachos breakdown in Ko Phi Phi, but also a hamburger relapse on the island. I’ll blame that one of Tom’s influence.

After Ko Phi Phi, we were onto Bangkok and I resolved to get back to only eating Asian food – and to try Bangkok’s famous street food. I started with pork on a stick. It was the most succulent, tender pork I have ever had – not the tough kind I made at home. Next, I came upon a lady at a food both standing next to a huge pile of…well, it looked like canned cat food. She was spooning big dollops of the concoction into hot oil and frying it. I couldn’t resist trying some. It tasted like deep friend bologna and hot dogs. Next please. That ended up being some perfectly roasted chicken; its marinade a flawless balance of BBQ and red pepper flavor cooked in a huge wine barrel-looking thing that served as a grill; the meat hung from the inside of it. The chicken came with a spicy dipping sauce in which Tom was soaking his chicken with glee. He saw me looking and pushed the sauce toward me.

“Try it,” he said. “You’ve been eating spicier things on this trip.”

That’s true. I could tell my spice tolerance had gone up, but I didn’t know if it had gone up enough to handle this sauce, whose heavy spice level was permeating my nostrils.

I placed the tip of a piece of chicken in it.

“Wimp,” Tom admonished. “Put the whole thing in.”

“The chicken itself is already spicy! I’ll do half,” I compromised and dipped.

I stuck it in my mouth. It tingled my nose and made my eyes start to water, but I kept chewing and found that if I suffered through the pain, I actually liked the taste and sensation I got from eating it.

I swallowed, elated. “I did it! I ate a super spicy bite of Thai food!”

“Or that’s their version of no spice,” Tom said with a wink.

I ignored him and took another bite of chicken dipped in the sauce, my love for Thai food complete, though the jury is still out on Pad Thai.

New to Thai Food? 3 Dishes to Start With

Cashew Chicken

The cashews add earthy flavor to pineapple, vegetables and chicken. Add soy sauce to make the flavors come alive.

Panang Curry

A milder curry dish that has a hint of coconut flavor to it.

Pad Thai

A rice-noodle based dish that gets its taste from a combination of fish sauce, tamarind, and other spices

Sticky Rice w/ Mango

An unlikely combination that is delectable goodness.

***

Gina Douglas has picked figs in Croatia, gone wine tasting in Tuscany, lived in a castle in England, rode an elephant in Thailand, and is currently dreaming up a hiking trip to Machu Picchu. She is the Director of Marketing for an online travel agency and also documents her travels on her blog.

    2 Comments

  • I’m so lucky that I can handle spicy food. Well, the Swedish standard of spicy food. Which in Thailand is probably negative 5 on the 0-100 spiciness scale.

    I guess I will just have to wait and see just how hot the thai food is. I want to try ordering the spiciest thing on the menu at least once – just for kicks.