By Zach Schepis
Fried chicken and Thai sausage over steamed rice, steamed pork buns, and a side of pork gravy.
The memories from my relatively short 10-day sojourn into the south of Thailand seem to have gained a kind of elasticity. Fleeting images and sensations return to the surface before disappearing again.
Riding elephants and playing with tigers, getting chased out of Monkey Temple (by monkeys), snorkeling through caves, paying respect to a mummified monk who was decked out in sunglasses…
Then there’s the maelstrom of Bangkok’s night life–but those stories are probably best left for another time and place.
Glass noodle salad with pork.
What really stuck with me more than any of these experiences, however, was the food. Quite simply, there is no other cuisine like Thai cuisine. There’s a reason why seven of Thailand’s popular dishes made it onto the list of the World’s 50 Most Delicious Dishes–including four in the top 10 alone.
I can say with complete honesty that I didn’t have a single bad meal during my stay. I don’t put this lightly–we ate street food alongside workers, aboard shoddy fishing vessels, and in the world’s oldest rainforest. We also dined in regal beachside resorts, upscale city eateries, and atop a mountain.
Every feast was delivered with tender care, attention to detail, and a third ingredient necessary to any notable chef’s arsenal, love; both for tradition and the craft itself.
A deceptively simple, yet stunning, presentation of classic chicken fried rice.
It’s not enough for a dish to taste good. Thai chefs take into account presentation, smell, and how each morsel fits into the rest of the meal. All parts serve the greater whole–encompassed by the term “sum rap Thai.”
Characteristically, in any given entree there is a complex interplay of up to five fundamental taste senses at work. These are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy. While they are all indispensable, I’d like to hone in on the latter.
My journey to the south was a quest for the spice of life. My philosophy with heat is pure and simple: the hotter the better. Nothing is too scorched or atomic for my palette. Whether it’s hand-picked bhut jolokias (ghost peppers), incendiary chilies, or Amarillo-soaked creole cau cau, intensity of heat brings me a certain bliss where others feel only pain, a rush of dopamine that can feel like getting high while eating.
I knew that the Thai cuisine would be a formidable challenge. Notorious for their unrelenting use of spice in nearly every dish, asking the chefs to make their favorite entrees “extra spicy” attracted more than a few raised eyebrows and sinister chortles.
I remained steadfast in my insistence, however. I would find the king of spice.
Most of the dishes we enjoyed in the south utilized non-glutinous rice as their staple, but in Bangkok it was soaked dried rice noodles that acted as the base of our first experience with street food. I’ve had my fill of pad thai back in the states, but it paled in comparison to what we devoured in the blistering heat of the city streets.
The dried rice noodles were stir fried right in front of us as the cook tossed in eggs, chopped tofu, dried shrimp, and peanuts. The secret, however, was all in the flavoring. Fresh tamarind pulp sealed the deal, along with a sprinkling of zesty fish sauce, shallots, palm sugar, and lime.
Of course, I added a nice heaping of freshly ground red chili for seasoning.
As we soon discovered, the farther south you travel, the hotter the dishes naturally become (much to the chagrin of my wary-tongued companions).
I haven’t been to India (yet), but I’d venture to say Thailand is one of the world’s Meccas for curry. Green, red, and yellow varieties ensconced our group with their freshness and heat, but it was the lesser-known varieties of the more southern regions that caught my attention.
Kaeng tai pla.
Kaeng tai pla, for instance, puckered my taste buds with an intense sour that managed to remain well balanced. Fresh vegetables–including bamboo shoots and eggplant–meshed with roasted fish innards. If it sounds disgusting, let me assure you: it’s not.
From Koh Samui to Ao Nang, the fish was heaven sent. Plucked straight from the warm waters onto our steaming plates, I almost always opted for fish. Fresh water Nile Tilapila (Tab Tim), salt water tuna and wahoo… pass the beef and chicken and go straight for the ocean.
I finally found what I was looking for on the beaches of Ao Nang. A small shanty beckoning shade against the oppressive midday sun, our group sauntered along into the yawning awning of Banlay Thai Kitchen.
The name of the dish itself almost caused a sting: Khua Kling. It’s a plate you can really only find in the south.
My eyes started to water before I could even dig in. The spiciest curry I’d yet encountered arrived in front of me. Minced meat with yardlong beans, fresh green phrik khi nu (Thai chilies), and a fair portion of finely shredded bai makrut (kaffir lime leaves) created a colorful unison.
The chefs’ heads lined up into a row, eyeing me with intent skepticism and awe from an opening in the kitchen.
I felt my body temperature rise, a tingling and explosion of flavor. I turned to meet their gaze with my own.
With a bow (and a fair share of tears), I dug in.
Photos by Zach Schepis.