I can still remember putting that fateful forkful of papaya salad into my mouth. There were two German guests sitting across the table from me, and several Thais sitting on either side of me. A large bowl of yellow curry had just been set out on the table, and smelled great -though I could see the bright red peppers floating in the broth. I would have to taste gingerly, to see if I could even eat it. It certainly smelled nice, but I certainly didn’t want to try carrying on a polite conversation with tears of searing pain in my eyes.
“Try my papaya salad,” a voice on my left said -and with that a bowl of Som Tum, or papaya salad, was placed in front of me. I knew from painful experience that this would be the hottest, spiciest entree of the entire meal. If the yellow curry was dynamite, this would be the atom bomb -and I didn’t want the blast going off in my mouth! Still, I probably should be polite and at least try a little bit…
A German man across the table was doing his best to carry on a conversation with me, using broken English -a language he admitted he wasn’t very good at speaking. While he continued, I lifted a heaping forkful of the dreaded shredded Som Tum up to my mouth and gently nibbled on a single piece of papaya. “Hey, not bad,” I thought. “Not hot at all.” While the German man continued talking, I shoved the rest of the forkful into my mouth and began chewing on this second bite. I quickly forgot about what was in my mouth and began concentrating on what the man across the table was saying.
That’s when the atom bomb went off…
I have been burned by Thai Som Tum both literally, and figuratively, on several occasions. It’s not just hot, it’s sneaky! The papaya shreds soak up the hot pepper juices like a sponge, and release them slowly. It takes several seconds for the heat to build up, and by that time it’s almost ready to be swallowed. It’s only then, when you have a huge masticated pulp of vegetable fiber in your mouth, ready to be swallowed -that you realize your mistake. The atom bomb has a delayed fuse, after all. This is what makes Som Tum so sneaky.
Every time I’ve been burned by Som Tum, it was after taking a small sample bite first. That small bite would pass with flying colors -so the fork would then typically be loaded up and shoved into my mouth. Hell, it might as well be cole slaw, the careless way I’ve treated that second bite. In this instance, I was just getting ready to swallow while listening to my German friend. It was then that I realized what I had in my mouth was far hotter than what I could handle. Not only that, but there was much too much of it! My mouth was completely full of this stuff!
I couldn’t make myself swallow, my tongue seemed unresponsive. Was it going numb? Fire laced juices were running down the back of my throat, and I was getting ready to gag. Tears were now running down my eyes -yet the German man seemed not to notice. He was still chatting away in broken English, but I could barely see him through my watering eyes. The Thai cook who had offered me this scorching appetizer, was still watching me, off to my left side -waiting for my nod of approval. I opened my mouth, and tilted my head forward -not for approval, but to let the contents of my mouth fall out onto my plate. It wouldn’t be a “spit out,” it would be a “fall out,” as I was beyond being able to “spit” anything. I was about to commit the ultimate faux-paux, in front of the cook, and her guests -but I had to get this stuff out of my mouth!
It was then that an inner voice somehow caught my attention, or rather it screamed for attention: “For God’s sake, just swallow it!” this voice said. Summoning all the courage I could, I closed my mouth and attempted to swallow. Three attempts later, I actually succeeded. I could feel a red hot coal burning it’s way down my esophagus, and the impact of it hitting my stomach. Though teary, my eyes were starting to clear, and I could now see the German man more clearly. He seemed to be looking at me.
“Was it hot?” he asked.
“Very.” I said.
“You’ll feel it tomorrow!” he joked.