Monday, June 22, 2009

Sweating the food away - Bangkok, Thailand

Here it comes, I can already feel it. It slowly crawls up from under my scalp, like a dome of thin needles coming out of my head. I chat a little longer, taste some spicy squid salad, I dip a fried shrimp in a naughty orange sauce, then pull it out dripping and glob it like that. After ten minutes my appearance has changed. My hair is drenched, my cheekbones are moist, my eyes are shiny and floating in the pools that have little by little flooded their sockets. Drops of salty water, like translucent snails, advance down my throat at a very slow pace, leaving behind them a maze of shiny trails.

For almost ten years I've been training for it: piping hot Laksas, spiced Indian Masalas, boiling Chinese hot pots and flaming Thai Tom Yam soups. There's nothing to do: my body, or better said my head, doesn't get used and keeps reacting like this.

“When you say that spicy food makes you sweat, you really mean it!”
Between two spoonfuls of seafood fried rice, Roberto can hardly suppress a smile. I pass my left hand over my hair and then use up four tissues to take off the sweat. The girls let go a respectful laugh. Not even a pearl or a shiny vein can be spotted on their velvety foreheads and cheeks.

I start to crack jokes in broken Thai: “Look, it's starting to rain, and my chair is standing out of umbrella range.” “Hey, does anybody happen to have a bottle of shampoo by any chance?” “There it is, another idiot throwing Songkran buckets out of season!” Maybe it's the jokes, or the way I speak: they laugh and forget my shower-like look.

I'm a little upset by the quantity of sweat that my head has released in just half an hour. I would like to be able to tell my body that there is no need to over-react!
I did study physics when I was at school, and I can't help wondering at this law-breaking ability to turn each and every small grain of dry chilly into spoonfuls of liquid oozing out of my pores. The mysterious process reminds me a little of some of my mother's delicious dishes. They must be eaten with extreme care, absolutely not earlier than at least half hour after they have been taken off the stove, when their temperature have finally dropped a few degrees below the lead melting point.

The problem is, I love this food. And even though I ask to have it made a little less spicy than papillae-burning level, I still like to feel that kick in my mouth. If it means that I have to spend the rest of the dinner translating silly jokes in Thai or Chinese and amassing a pile of soaked tissues on the table...well, at the end that's a fair price to pay.

Photo Luis Armstrong, by Hermann Hiller, from New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper photograph collection, 1953 (PD)

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