THAILAND, June 2014—A frequent comment on food websites is that I should avoid discussion of politics or social conditions and concentrate on the food. My host, serving me a humble but tasty Lao-style larb, could be missing three of his limbs, but God forbid I ask the question, “Hey there, fella, what happened to your arm and legs?” Because the answer might intrude on someone’s vicarious eating experience.
So there should be much rejoicing in Chowland that this episode of “Parts Unknown” is all about the food. Ironically, it takes place in one of the most politicized environments on Earth: Thailand, where it seems that every time we go there are civil actions, military coups, changes of government. I’d like to say that the politics of Thailand are just too complicated, too fast-changing, too impenetrable for me to understand, much less explain—hence my focus on food and drink. But that wouldn’t be true.
Fact is, I chose to focus on eating and specifically drinking around Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand simply because I was fortunate enough to go there with a uniquely qualified guide: Chef Andy Ricker, the man behind Portland’s and New York’s Pok Pok restaurants. He may be a farang—slang term for “foreigner”—but he’s been moving back and forth between Thailand and America for 20 years or more and, well … Just eat his food sometime and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Basically, it’s an entire hour of prolonged bender, an increasingly addled tuk-tuk ride from place to place, shoving delicious things into my face and washing them down at turns with Thai “whiskey,” moonshine, and beer. Naturally, things ended badly.
I don’t like pain. I don’t even like minor discomfort. Except when we are talking food, in which case the older I get, the spicier and more painful I want it. It’s one of the things that hooked me earliest and most irrevocably about Southeast Asia: the spices, the chills, the funky mouth-searing sauces and dips.
Any idiot can dump enough cayenne or hot sauce into a bowl of ground beef and ignite your head.
It takes a master to build the deeply pleasurable slow boil you find in some Thai dishes, the delicate interplay of sweet and sour and spicy, the gradual buildup of pleasure/pain to the point that you feel your vision start to get weird. Numerous times during my most recent trip, I’d be halfway through a delicious tabletop full of food and feel my eyesight closing down. First it would go fuzzy around the edges of the frame, like a Vaseline-smeared lens. Andy would start to morph into Barbara Walters on The View. Then, gradually, it would shutter into full-on tunnel vision, tongue burning on all sides, lips inflamed, nape of neck and forehead beaded with sweat. An otherworldly sense of elation came over me as my brain flooded with endorphins.
To be fortunate enough to visit Thailand—to eat in Thailand—is a deep dive into a rich, many-textured, very old culture of flavors and colors ranging far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this Earth and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available in this country, you don’t want to miss ANY of it.