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Tom Thai is not a man, but a delicious green papaya salad. My mother-in-law made this the spiciest thing I have ever eaten, still not sure if that was good or bad omen.
I started traveling to Thailand about eight years ago. I have traveled to over 20 different countries and I found Thailand is the place I want to call home. The climate it great, not a chance of extreme cold weather, because it is only five feet away from the sun. Okay, so an extreme exaggeration, but on some days, it does feel that way.
But apparently having high in temperature in Thailand, also means that the food has to be hot, too. I am not talking about temperature, though. I am talking about levels of spiciness. I grew up in a family that avoided spicy foods. I started using Tabasco when I was in high school. Later, it was Sriracha sauce on sandwiches. Jalapeños with tacos and burritos. Not a junkie, but a little bit of an addict, I started to crave a little biting back in my food.
I do not mean eating spicy for the purpose of proving I am courageous and foolhardy, but rather as another element to the traditionally recognized tastes of sweet, bitter, salty and sour. Other cultures recognize additional tastes like umami. I will stick to the ones I use when I cook and eat, the traditional four plus spicy.
In my time in Thailand, I had seen the locals eating a green papaya salad, called Som-tam. Most of the time, people order this cold or room-temp salad with bala. I never had any interest in eating papaya salad with bala, because bala is whole, fermented fish. I politely use the word “fermented”. Although “rotting” might be a better word, at least from a Western viewpoint. I like cooking and eating traditional Asian fish sauces. Bala is something totally different and common throughout other countries in Asia. If you are adventurous, go ahead, eat some bala.
During the course of meeting and dating my wife, I inevitably found out that the papaya salad did not need to have bala added to eat it. Like many foods in Thailand, there is the inclination to eat things fresh, made from fresh ingredients and prepared fresh for customers. If you order papaya salad, they make it fresh for you. Once the salad is made, it needs to be eaten within an hour or two. Similar to a salad that has salad dressing put on it, if you do not eat it soon, you probably will not eat it later due to the soggy greens.
Green papaya salad without the bala is called Tom Thai. And it is delicious. I eat it for lunch sometimes, just like I would a green salad in the States. It is healthy and simple. The trick, and there is always a trick, is finding the right number of chilies to add. As with any natural ingredient, there are variations in size and in this case, intensity of heat with the chilies.
It has been a learning curve, I think I usually aim for about two or three chilies. Thais, like my wife, will order it by saying something like, “Give me a bunch. I want it spicy.” (loosely translated). Often, I look at the red chilies swimming about her plate and grimace at the sight.
So, during the course of meeting my wife’s parents. My future mother-in-law, at the time, was regularly making Tom Thai for me for lunch. She would vary the number of chilies and oftentimes I found it to be just a little bit spicier than I like.
Then one day, simply put, she put too many. The Thai red chili is a creeper. It does not bite you back at first, but it builds. By the third or forth bite, my mouth was on fire. I had a similar experience before, so I proceeded to eat it as quickly as possible. Please remember, this was my future mother-in-law, who is now my actual mother-in-law. I figure it was best to be polite and finish the dish she had just prepared for me.
I ate quickly and orderly and then gulped down some Coke, swishing it in my mouth to try and wash out the fireplace that my mouth had become. Being a man, I do not usually wear lipstick. On this occasion, it looked like I had just put on a new coat of fire candy apple from Revlon. After attempting to squelch the fire with the Coke. I hurriedly went to the bathroom. I used my toothbrush and brushed my mouth out as best as possible. I frequently rinsed and spit, rinsed and spit with water. I went to the kitchen and gulped a mouthful of milk and held it there, not drinking the milk, but pausing to let the dairy battle it out with the chili oils still residing in my mouth. I went back to the bathroom and scrubbed my lips with soap and water, repeating this activity several times.
After 30 to 40 minutes, it finally settled down to where I did not have the sun’s fire in my mouth, anymore. I love my wife, I love my now mother-in-law and I really enjoy eating Tom Thai, but just a couple of peppers, please.
Check out a simple and delicious recipe for making your own Tom Thai: