A friend of yours has arrived today and this is the first time that he's visiting Thailand. You take him to a restaurant and order Som tam (*). You tell the waiter to make it mai pet (**). The dish is in front of you, you taste it first and you're supposed to tell your friend whether it's hot or not. It does taste nice, so fresh, crispy and sour. Hold on! Don't do it, don't tell him "it's OK", as if you didn't know much better than that. Wait for a while and take a second bite. The remaining slices of green papaya might have undergone spontaneous self-combustion. You're mouth goes dry, your face is a turnip and the fork is hovering between you and the plate. They didn't add peppers, as it was supposed to be, but nobody took the trouble to wash the mortar. And if this is an authentic Isan (***) joint, for the previous patron they might have put thirty chilies.
(*) Som tam (ส้มตำ): green papaya salad. It comes in many different varieties.
(**) Mai pet (ไม่เผ็ด): not spicy. What is considered "not spicy" in Thailand can be glowing coals for many westerners. It can be even worse in case we are talking about the North-eastern provinces. If you want your food to be "not spicy" you have to order it mai pet lei (ไม่เผ็ดเลย), which means "not spicy at all", or mai sai prik (ไม่ใส่พริก), which means "don't add any chili".(***) Isan (อีสาน): North-eastern part of Thailand, culturally related to Laos.
Photo by Fabio Pulito
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