Thai and Lao food are very similar; I am sure you have all gathered that by now. From personal experience, I find Lao food to be more spicy, but maybe I am biased because I have relatives who cook things that will scald the tastebuds of even the boldest tongue.
Naturally, I love spice. I find mild food very unpalatable and can’t help but give strange looks to people who think peppercorns are spicy. When I cook meals for such people, I slip in a pinch of pepper just to see if they notice. Oh man, do they ever notice! Usually I am left feeling very lost. I mean, I can’t even make spaghetti without adding a heaping spoon of red pepper flakes.
In my family, spicy food is a rite of passage. I can’t remember when I was introduced to tham maak hoong but I was fairly young, maybe a toddler. My aunt (bless her heart) would clean each sliver of spicy papaya (in her mouth) before giving it to me. Sorry if I made anyone gag, but come on – that’s love. Mom also chewed tough deer jerky for me, until she was sure my mastication ability was on point. What can I say? Lao families…we are closer than close. We share kee-kaew (translation: all the gross stuff that gets caught between your teeth, predominantly plaque).
Spice tolerance generally increases with age. Maybe you start with one chili pepper in your papaya salad. By the time you’re a teenager, 3 or 4 peppers is standard, otherwise you will never hear the end of it. I know adults who use 10 peppers. I don’t think I’ve ever gone above 6, and it really also depends on who grew the chilies. If that person is my aunt, 10 might kill you. You’ve been warned, in case you try to be macho.
Now, there is such a thing as too much spice – the point at which you can’t even enjoy the flavor of the dish. Then you’re just a glutton for punishment, and who likes that guy?
One time, I was smashing chili peppers and garlic with a mortar and pestle. I made a common rookie error: I leaned in too close. A tiny pepper flake ricocheted off the curved wooden interior of the mortar. At first I thought I was a ninja and had closed my eyelids in time, but after a split second this turned out to be untrue. I cried. I writhed. The pain was searing, kind of like being stabbed in the eye with a red hot poker. But only if that hot poker were to stab repeatedly for an hour. That’s how long I ran my face under the faucet.
When the burning finally subsided, I couldn’t put my contact lens back in just yet, but I noticed my vision was nearly perfect. A miracle! According to Mom, elderly people in Laos commonly make a solution of water and chili flakes to rinse out their eyes. It’s supposed to help with cataracts. I do not plan on repeating this experiment.
Well, I digressed rather quickly. I only intended to show you 4 varieties of spice that I use on a daily basis. Not all at once, mind you – what do you think I am, pii baa (crazy)?
*This list does not include your standard Sriracha which, in my opinion, is perhaps equivalent to a jalapeño on the Scoville scale.*
1) Dried, ground chili flakes: not the stuff you sprinkle on pizza. If you are going to use this as a topping for anything, make sure you use it sparingly. I usually incorporate it in recipes, like soups and noodles.
2) Infused oil: can be used much the same way as the dried chili flakes but offers an extra amazing flavor because it is mixed with crispy garlic. I love to use it as a seasoning in pho and a noodle dish called kao piaak sen.
3) Jaew bong (spicy chili paste or “blop jop” as DP calls it): Mom makes huge vats of this at a time because it keeps so long and is fairly labor intensive. Her version is so HOT that I can only use a tiny amount because it burns the lining of my stomach. That love/hate thing…it’s real.
Jaew bong is best as a condiment for dipping sticky rice. The recipe includes a long list of spices, most of them deep fried: red chilies, garlic, shallots, galangal; some fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind paste, dried shrimp, and kaffir lime leaves. One traditional ingredient that Mom leaves out for me is dried buffalo or beef.
4) And of course, your standard Thai chilies. I have a stash in the freezer at all times, or I pickle them and eat them straight out of the jar with noodles. This year I didn’t plant any but Mom and Pa Boun always have a plentiful crop.
If you are ever feeling like your life needs more spice, I suggest you incorporate a little bit at a time. They say it’s good for weight management, heart health, and sinus problems. I’ve even heard it improves vision…