Forget Variety, It’s Capsaicin

August 19, 2014 – Day 344

Today’s post is about food, but today’s post will not be chock-full-o’-photographs of the delicious vittles I have consumed in restaurants around Bangkok.

If there is anything you, the reader, should take away from my experiences with Thai food is that it is spicy. I am not talking about a jalapeno / habanero type of spice that burns the lips and tongue. No, instead, Thai peppers enjoy a quality of heat (and sometimes pain) that sears the back of the throat and invades the sinus cavity. The best corollary I can come up is the wasabi served in most Japanese restaurants in the States. Eat too much of that green paste in one chunk and you want to pour water straight down your nostrils to quench the fire.

Back to Thailand and my first experience with Thai spice was last October when I was taken to an open market for lunch. Since I knew next to nil about how to order, my guide asked me what I wanted and he placed the order for me. When the vendor (translated via my guide) asked how much spiciness I wanted, I was set to answer “medium”. Now, I had just spent two years in Peru where their cuisine can pack quite the spicy punch (and new and old readers can jump over to that Lima lunch featuring The Rocoto Incident) so I thought I could handle the mid-range of heat that Thailand could offer. Well, my guide stopped me short and simply told the vendor “nit noi”. This Thai phrase is best translated as “just a little,” which is all my guide thought I could handle.

He was my guide to this culture so I was not about to argue. ‘Twas a good thing that I didn’t countermand him because the level of “nit noi” spice in my larb moo (ground pork) was just at my limit.

“Nit noi” was my new phrase, but it didn’t mean that I would always remember it.

Three months later, the family and I went to a restaurant at our local mall north of Bangkok. We were drawn to this specific eatery because half of the menu was written in English. This makes it easier for us to understand what we are ordering. Plus, when we do order, everyone can simply point to the Thai words above the English and the waiter can know what we want. In addition, this menu has a scale on the bottom where a person can point to show the level of spiciness they desire in their dish. When I placed my order, I pointed to “4” (on a scale of “1” to “10”) instead of saying “nit noi”.

I never finished my meal.

The peppers, spice, and heat of my meal (this time, ground chicken, also known as larb gai) was so intense that ten minutes into my dinner, I could not see because the tears in my eyes was obscuring my vision. I had never before nor have since experienced such heat and spice in a meal – and I’ve even eaten the 911 sauce at a buffalo wing establishment in northern Virginia where they make you sign a waiver absolving them of any liability should you expire. That 911 sauce hurt, but this spice on my larb altered my body’s chemistry.

(No, I have no idea what that last sentence means, but I just couldn’t figure out how else to convey the fact that the peppers on that larb were more painful that swallowing a lava flow.)

With those lessons firmly in mind about the dangers of Thai peppers, I made sure to take precautions whenever I cooked with such peppers. Yes, every once in a while, I will cook dinner for the family and while my catalog of dishes is small, I consider it no small success that a) the house has not burned down and b) no one has been admitted to the hospital after my meals.

As to my pepper preparation, I made sure that I always washed the tiny packages of capsaicin and I always ensured that after I cut the peppers I scraped out most of the seeds because that is where the real dynamite resides. I also made sure never NEVER NEVER to touch my eyes after handling the peppers. Because that would be real pain.

Oddly enough, whatever instructions I had read that warned me against rubbing my eyes after preparing peppers was silent on the topic of scratching one’s nose after preparing peppers.

Even though I had washed my hands after preparing the peppers and even though I only used one finger to scratch that little divot (or crease or whatever its medical name is) under my nose, my nasal cavity reacted in such a way that it was as if I had taken a handful of ground pepper and snorted it right then and there. While the pain that seized my sinuses was nowhere near the pain I had endured in the restaurant after my “4”-point larb, having one’s olfactory sense organ invaded by capsaicin is nothing to sneeze at (sorry).

Last story and then I’ll pack it in for today.

This story also revolves around my adventures in the kitchen. On this Tuesday in August of this year, I was whipping up a concoction of Thai basil chicken. The first step of this recipe is to heat some oil in a pan. Seems simple enough, I hear you say, but I garbled up this simple step in two ways. The first error was that I turned the burner on high instead of medium. My second fault was that I stepped away from the stove for longer than I should have in order to mediate some dispute between my two sons.

When I returned to the stove, I knew that my next step was to throw in the garlic and peppers that I had chopped up. This is what I did. Now, I don’t know if you have ever seen what happens when pure potassium hits water (and for those of you who would like to see what happens, you can see it at the 1:45 mark in this video), but it’s a reasonable facsimile of what happened in the Sandosen Kitchen when my cute little chopped-up slivers of pepper and minced garlic hit the hot oil.

Thankfully, there was no fire or explosion, but there was plenty of smoke.

I also discovered that day that flash-heating peppers full of capsaicin produces a cloud of smoke that also contains plenty of capsaicin. You know what hurts worse than touching your nose after handling peppers? Inhaling smoke full of capsaicin.

Through fits of hacking and coughing, I took the pan off the heat (which was now full of burnt oil, blackened bits of garlic, and shriveled peppers), turned the stove fan on high, and opened all the doors and windows on our first floor.

As a postscript, I did manage to do better on my second try at the meal.

The last three stories remind me of the saying, “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.”

Here’s hoping the bad judgement with the capsaicin ends here.

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