British cuisine may have a reputation (undeserved) for blandness, but we Brits are addicted to spicy food. Indian restaurants now outnumber fish & chip shops, and whilst they may owe their original popularity to being the only places you could get a drink back in the dark days when the pubs closed at 10.30pm, they are now loved for their spicy cuisine as much as for their exploitation of loopholes in the licensing laws.
Of course, real Indian food isn’t that spicy, at least not spicy in the sense that it can strip the skin off your lips & mouth in just a couple of bites. For that kind of masochistic pleasure you have to head to Southeast Asia. Thailand is of course famous for the lethal properties of some of its dishes, and Jay Tindall and myself frequently come back to the Remote Lands office of an afternoon sweating after a particularly potent plate of kra pow moo. But nothing prepared me for the experience of trying som tam (papaya salad) in a small village in southern Laos’ beautiful Bolaven Plateau region.
We’d spent the morning heading out into the wilds of the countryside around Attapeu, a small town near the Vietnamese border, hoping to meet and photograph ethnic minority women with tattooed faces. This accomplished, we were heading back for the long drive to Pakse when we decided to stop for a cold drink in a likely-looking village. There we encountered the male villagers playing petanque (a legacy of French colonial days – Laos remains one of the world’s leading petanque nations), and the female villagers pounding chillis to make som tam.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I pride myself on trying any food put in front of me at least once, and immediately set about procuring some of this salad for myself. The villagers, surprised to find foreigners in their midst and stunned to see those foreigners wanting to try their food, gathered round to watch me take my first mouthful, seeming to take a sadistic pleasure in knowing the agonies I was about to endure.
Because man, this stuff was hot. Not the gradual kind of heat you get with some Thai dishes, but an instant, burning pain that seared my lips & mouth. The salad itself, the usual mix of shredded papaya, nuts, fish sauce & chillis, tasted good for one brief second before the heat kicked in, and I managed two or three more mouthfuls before admitting defeat and ordering a second can of Coke. This was food as endurance test rather than dining for pleasure, and when I hear foreigners here in Bangkok saying how spicy their som tam is, I just shake my head and think oh, if only you knew…
Tim Russell is Remote Lands' Director of Sales & Marketing for Asia-Pacific, based in our Bangkok office. He arrived in Thailand in September 2012 after a decade living & working in Vietnam.