I peer into the white, ceramic bowl. Guay dtiaao sen yai phak mai neuua naam tom yum, not necessarily said in that order but loosely translated as rice noodles, large, vegetable no meat, soup with tom yum flavour. Flat, wide rice noodles rest on the bottom of the bowl along with some bean shoots and some kind of shallots. They are surrounded by a brownish liquid upon which floats hundreds of red specks. I gasp. So much chili. I always order nik noi phet, a little spicy. But today in the confusion of unexpectedly ordering from a roadside vendor without an English menu, I have forgotten this simple but important request and my noodle soup is phet mak mak, gluttonously spicy in traditional Thai style.
I push the noodles around my bowl with my fork and spoon, stirring more of the red specks to the surface. I stare at them in semi-disbelief. How am I going to eat this dish with so much chili? And just how much pain am I going to inflict upon my tongue and lips?
Only once before have I made the mistake of ordering a painfully spicy red curry. I was at a Thai restaurant popular with tourists and had assumed that spicy would mean tourist spicy and not Thai spicy. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. I suffered through the the dish in silence, my face redder than the curry I was eating, my eyes bulged and sweat beads formed on my eyelids. It took quite some time for my dinner companions to figure out that something was wrong, that my silence wasn’t quiet enjoyment of my deliciously spicy red curry. As fans of ordering phet mak mak, they found my situation amusing as I slowly ate small spoonfuls of curry quickly washed down with icy cold Tiger beer. I lost the battle with the curry and surrendered half way through the dish, my oesophagus and stomach burning from the chili consumption. Not even the two beers I swiftly sculled in 15 minutes could do much but momentarily quell the fire in my mouth and stomach. Ever since, I have always made sure I have ordered phet nik noi.
Thankfully this dish is not too big but I am fearful that I am about to experience a repeat of the red curry saga. I stop playing with my food and slowly, I lower my spoon into the bowl and scoop up a small amount of the liquid and bring it to my lips. It tastes sweet with a trace of lime juice and fish sauce. I swallow and within seconds experience the subtle burning fire of the chilies in my mouth. That wasn’t so bad. I repeat the process again and again. After the fourth mouthful, the fire finally takes a hold of my mouth. I gulp greedy mouthfuls of cold white wine knowing that it will do little but lower the flame for a second. I try to scoop up more liquid without flecks of chili without success. My spoon is a chili magnet.
Slowly, I make my way through the dish, eating the noodles, bean shoots and shallots. After each mouthful I pause and wait for the chili burn to crescendo, but after the eighth mouthful, the burn seems to have peaked. My lips and tongue are on fire and my eyelids are sweating once again but it is bearable. So hungrily, I chow down the remainder of the soup including the remaining bracken lake of chili. In celebration, I scull the remainder of my wine. But then promptly take another glass to aide the after burn. I ate phet mak mak and enjoyed it! But I’m in no rush to experience the daily chili burn. For now, I think I will stick to ordering phet nik noi.