Sam Tam’s Layers

There are seven distinct intensities of spice. First, there is an uncomfortable tingling sensation on your tongue. Now, this is the base line of spice – you can generally get this feeling from hot sauces throughout the south, or a hot pepper that caught you the wrong way in some salsa. It is generally here where people start to differentiate between “liking spicy food” or not. That is to say, if people say “Oh, I just don’t do spicy food very well” that means they like to stay at a 0 on my scale of heat.

Once you’ve made the decision to “like spicy food,” they you start to climb very quickly up the ladder. The second level is that surreal feeling that your lips are on fire. Not actual fire, but it feels like they are hot and cold and burning on an open flame and stuck to dry ice at the same time. Nothing really can cool them down – not water or bread and especially not rice. I’ve kissed a bowl full of milk before to stop the insanity (the liquid, that is, not the actual bowl). Normally, you just plow through this feeling.

For those who don’t like spice, I’m sure you’re already like “why would you put yourself through that?” Just wait, naysayer. It gets much better.

Three is simply cosmetic: your face starts to turn a shade of red that would imply excessive make-up application as if you were a three year old first finding your mother’s blush. But no, it’s all natural. Ta-da.

As we climb to number four, we start to get a tingling feeling on the top of our head as if your brain was telling you “stop this.” Don’t listen. Just acknowledge the tingling at the crown of your head, maybe give it a scratch, and know that the best is yet to come. Exhilaration! Excitement! Metabolic play!

Number five on my scale requires you to be in good company, or near a bathroom. No, it’s not bathroom-humor, rather you start to sweat. It starts on your face, then moves down to your chest and arms, and if you’re lucky: your back. It’s as if the food that your ingesting is actually replicating an increase in your surrounding’s temperature. That is to say, if you’re stuck in the tundra, just whip out a jalapeño and jack up your core temperature. I’ve personally had a lot of experience with this sweating sensation. See: in the kitchen of my Thai Restaurant during staff dinner. I had a strange obsession with spice back then so much so that I would mix one tablespoon of peanut sauce, one bowl of rice, and one tablespoon of blended habeñero peppers, and wait for the sweat to roll down my back. Obviously this wasn’t professional since I then had to go clear tables, give people water, put in orders, and collect bills, but it was living.

We’ve climbed this high, why not see the penultimate and final two stages of spice, or as some of you may be thinking at this point – torture.

Level six is a strange physiological reaction: hiccups. I haven’t understood why these happen (I’ve been told that it’s because there is a nerve by your diaphragm that, if hit in a certain way by a certain level of spice, will spaz out and cause hiccups), but I do know that it happens. Sometimes my body will jump right to this stage in spice if I eat something too quickly, but more often then not, it’s after the tongue, lips, face, head, and sweat start up. These, I warn you, aren’t normal hiccups either. More so, they are strange and semi-violent hiccups. Thrilling! Enlivening! Experience!

I’ve known about these six for a good while now, but the seventh was a new discovery in Thailand. Throughout this description, I’ve been subtly showing you pictures of the dish that showed me that last spice. It is sam tam (spicy green papaya salad).  A dish that lets the spice build and build and climbs up my spice ranking. It starts at a 0, hops from 1 to 3 in a heartbeat, then is at 7 by the end of your meal. You’d never expect it, either, since it is shaved green papaya, garlic, lemon juice, sugar, long beans, tomato, peanuts, fish sauce, salt, and a few chilis. It’s not really explainable, but there’s something in there that gets you good. Real good.

Sam tam is all over Thailand, too. It’s in Bangkok in the winding streets of Chinatown, as well as the gorgeous mountains of Chiang Mai.  It’s on the streets on Styrofoam rectangular plates or in open-air restaurants set just off the side of the street.

The first one LZ and I had together was on day two: in Chiang Mai. After an overnight train ride up to the mountain city, a morning walk through the old town and through to our hostel, our first run together in Thailand, we decided it had been enough time since we last ate and headed out in search of sam tam. To be honest, LZ hadn’t stopped talking about this dish, so I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation.

The first sam tam ranked at about a five. No hiccups, but sweat for sure. The second one we got, and third and fourth, and twentieth, ranked around a five or six. The one we got right before we left Chiang Mai for Khon Kaen? That was a seven.

What is a seven? One of LZ’s friends said it perfectly: “It’s so spicy I want to scrape my tongue off with a chopstick” or “I want to rub sand in my mouth to stop this.”  Or as these pictures show: sometimes you can semi-hallucinate. Like I said: real good.

Is this pleasurable? I think so, most certainly. But that’s because I run, do hot yoga that makes me sweat more than a sauna, love to hike for long times with huge packs on my back, go to hard schools that make me pull all nighters to get a passing grade, write seventy pages in under nine days, and read James Joyce’s Ulysses by my self. All in all: I like to… put myself through the gauntlet.

Don’t worry anxious readers, I will hop back to describe Chiang Mai in full, I just wanted to really focus on Sam tam today. It is that good.


4 thoughts on “Sam Tam’s Layers

  1. You have always loved spices, do not taste garlic and “put yourself through the gauntlet” that is an understatement, but look where you are and what you have accomplished 🙂 Guess it works for you huh? I myself am the 0 spice person 🙂 Love the descriptions of the level of spice.

  2. Boo boo – oh mah gawd. That first pick-cha. dang-a-lang!!! So gorgeous. I wish I had more than a barely-there tolerance for spicy things…I’m only in the last year eating salsa.
    DID YOU GET MY LETTER?!?! break my heart.

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