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Incendiary Insights into Thai Food

WHEN I WAS AN exchange student at Chiangmai University (CMU), my Thai friends and I went to a local restaurant. I ordered mixed vegetables. My friends were carrying on as usual, and started eating the mixed vegetables along with the other food they had ordered. I took a spoonful and while I was chewing I was taken by complete surprise. "Narm prik noom", a dense mixture of green chili peppers, had been mixed throughout the vegetables. I coughed and gasped while tears rolled down my cheeks. My entire face and head broke out in a sweat. I wheezed for my breath, afraid that I would pass out. During all of this, my friends were in hysterics over my reaction. After this humiliating experience, and not wanting to be the buffoon every time I ate Thai food, I decided to train myself to eat Thai chili peppers. And my perseverance really paid off.

When I returned to the States, I often ate Thai food in the only Thai restaurant in my hometown. My favorite dish was chicken with cashew nuts, and I would ask for the addition of chili peppers. It grew into a contest between the chef and myself as to how many chili peppers I could tolerate. In the end, I could manage to eat this dish which contained one-third chicken, one-third cashews and one-third chili peppers. I was happily back in Chiangmai again, this time as an English teacher at CMU. One evening, the head professor of the department invited me to his house. He had set out a plate of chili peppers, pork sausage, vegetables and a bottle of Johnny Walker. The professor started out by picking up a chili pepper which he broke in half, placed a half of it in his mouth and chewed slightly. Pork sausage, vegetable and long drink of Johnny Walker quickly followed this.Oh, this was going to be my night to shine! I eagerly followed him by placing a whole pepper in my mouth and chewing it vigorously. I could see the snicker start on the professor's face. His look turned into amazement, and then to one of appreciation when he saw no panic or theatrics on my part - only my smile of satisfaction. Like any professor proud of his student, he applauded me and said: "Gkeng maag!"

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Before coming to Thailand, I traveled in many countries where I couldn't speak the language. At times, I had quite a problem ordering food. One day I discussed this problem with a fellow traveler who suggested I use sign language accompanied by the sounds that animals make: crowing like a rooster for chicken, quacking for duck or making the sound of a cow or pig. This system worked out quite well in every country I traveled in until I came to Thailand. Ordering chicken or duck was no problem, but it seemed that every time I ordered beef, I got pork. One day I was finally so exasperated when I ordered beef and got pork again, I pointed to the dish and said, "Moo, moo no!" The waiter shook his head and said: "moo, moo yes!" Only then did I find out that "moo" or "mooh" is the Thai word for pig or pork. In Thailand, cows say "boaw, boaw", not "moo, moo!!!"

So Much for Sign Language

I had been living in Chiangmai for several years at the time my Thai wife and I made a visa run to Kunming. We were delighted to find that only a block from our hotel, there were a number of open-air eating places which were very reminiscent of the noodle shops of Chiangmai, which we visit often. The next day, we looked them over and picked what appeared to be a nice one for lunch. Nobody in the place spoke any English or Thai, but we didn't see that as a problem, because all their raw foods were neatly displayed behind glass for us to pick from.We carefully pointed out four ingredients, and indicated that we would like to have them stir-fried with rice for our lunch. The waiter and the cook nodded with smiles and apparently complete understanding of our request, and we sat to enjoy our tea while we waited. It seemed to take a little longer than we had anticipated, but we were in no hurry, so didn't mind. Then the waiter brought out the first dish, and to our surprise, the cook had prepared a complete meal for two with only one of the ingredients we had selected. This was followed immediately by similar quantities in separate preparations of each of the other three items, plus a liberal quantity of fried rice. The food was excellent, but we had enough on our table to feed at least a dozen people! The next day, as we were walking by the shop, the waiter stopped us and motioned for us to sit, while he took off on a dead run for somewhere, and returned all smiles with a small Chinese-American phrase book, with pictures. What followed was a meeting of all the staff, and us as we created our lunch order, trying to order it in Chinese. Everyone got a lot of laughs out of it, but we did get what we wanted.

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