BANGKOK, THAILAND -- "You can eat spicy, sir?"
Every time I order in a restaurant in this noisy, steamy, teeming, traffic-clogged, friendly and fascinating city, they ask me that. With the sweetest of smiles.
But I'm worried. What are they preparing me for? Warning me against? Is there some hidden national conspiracy to fry the foreigner's palate, then protest that they tried to warn me?
Still, I'm such a fan of Thai cuisine that I plunge ahead in this pilgrimage to its very source. Determined to unlock its secrets, plumb its soul so I can dazzle my friends by replicating it at home.
So my relief is profound when I learn with my first few meals that I can go as far as maybe 4 on the popular menu spiciness scale of 1 to 5 -- to where my forehead grows moist, my nose begins to run and a delirious deliciousness happens -- without permanent damage. Someone entirely averse to heat could do a 1 or 2 without so much as a tingle.
Nooror Somany laughs. She's my instructor at The Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok. She spills the first secret of Thai cuisine: "Heat never predominates in a Thai dish. It is always balanced by something soothing -- the sweetness of sugar, the creaminess of coconut milk. The most important thing in Thai cooking is balance."
The experience is proof that, if you want to learn to cook Thai, there's no better way than a vacation here to immerse yourself in it. In chaotic morning markets where chefs haggle over a bounty of fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and herbs trucked in from the countryside. In restaurants, from storefront to four-star, where the cuisine is presented in its surprising range of styles, at amazingly frugal prices. In ubiquitous street vendor carts, where you can nibble anything from fresh mango slices to savory noodle dishes to deep-fried water bugs, widening the variety of experience past the point of reason.
And, of course, in the cooking schools, where English-speaking instructors give classes of four hours to a week, from $70 to $600 or more, to reveal the secrets of those fascinating flavors.
The first lesson is the one about balance. Thais say it's inherent in their national culture from the Buddhist way that seeks nirvana through balancing suffering and desire - that sees noisy display as gauche, an angry yell as a shaming loss of self-control.
The same idea imbues Thai cuisine. Every dish seeks a proper balance of aroma, flavor, texture, even appearance. And flavor balances the holy pentagon of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy.
Case in point: the traditional Thai appetizer Miang Kam, from the elegant Celadon Restaurant in Bangkok's Sukhothai Hotel. An excerpt from my Bangkok diary: "The single best dish of the week. A large, lime-green Celadon stoneware dish arrives, layered on one side by big, round, green leaves, a bit like grape leaves, here called bai chertplu.
"Around the rest of the plate are individual, cup-shaped lotus blossoms, each holding a different ingredient: toasted, shredded coconut, shallots, dried shrimps, Siamese ginger, tiny lime chunks, hot red and green bird's-eye chiles, cashews. In the center is a little bowl of savory sauce: honey, soy, toasted herbs, coconut. Using your fingers, you form the leaf into a cone and put in a bit of each ingredient, add a dollop of sauce and pop into your mouth.
"It's an explosion of sensations: sweet, sour, crunchy, chewy, soft, hot, cool, acid, mild, savory, salty, tangy. And it's as pleasing to the eye as to the tongue."
"It's an old traditional Royal Thai Cuisine delicacy," says Vira Sanguanwong, the Celadon chef. "The fragrance of the leaves combines with the crunch and punch of the other ingredients and the sweetness of the sauce, helping to 'round up' the flavors."
A NICE TASTE
A week is not enough to understand the range of Thai cuisine styles, but it's sufficient to give you a taste and make you want to learn more. Here are more experiences:
The Lemon Grass restaurant, with its light, almost nouvelle style:
* Salad: Yan ma muang (green mango slaw with crispy fried squid, $3). The slaw is crunchy and salty with a creamy, mildly spicy dressing; fried squid are like pork rinds -- a nice contrast.
* Soup: Tomka Gai Sai Hua Plee Pao (Chicken and banana flower in coconut milk, $4.50.) This is absolutely wonderful. Exotic, perfumy; the banana flower is crunchy, aromatic, the chicken is tender, the coconut milk is rich and creamy, the spice is warm but not threatening.
This is the first restaurant I visit in Bangkok. It's a learning experience. First thing I notice is there's only a fork and spoon on the table. Guidebooks say the food always arrives in small enough pieces that you don't need a knife. Thai folk use the fork to push the food onto the spoon, which transports it to the mouth. Putting fork in mouth is considered gauche.
I look around for a demonstration of this, but every table seems to be full of foreigners. There's one being gauche. Tsk.
Thai slang for "foreigner," incidentally, is "farang," which also means "guava." Again, I suspect some hidden meaning. I never learn what.
Ban Chiang is an Isan restaurant, meaning it cooks in the northern Thai style: grilled pork ribs laced with slices of red pepper (you can find the farang by the pile of plucked-out peppers beside his plate); chewy, spicy, smoky, good - not particularly exotic. But the most wonderful drink: lemon-grass tea. Tart, tasting a bit like lemons, a bit like scallions, poured over crushed ice, it's the most refreshing drink possible after a steamy day in Bangkok.
The Bussaracum Restaurant is a glittery place. Modern, elegant gold-leaf wallpaper, high ceilings with subtly striped columns, curving metal staircase, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a Bird of Paradise garden. Tall, Chagall-like murals on the walls depicting flights of birds, schools of fish swimming through aquatic plants.
Everywhere stand pretty, slim, 20-ish young women watching customers -- outnumbering them, actually -- poised to cater to the slightest whim. Wages must be low; this place isn't that expensive. In fact, with a few exceptions, it's hard to spend more than $30 on a meal in Bangkok.
But aren't the waitresses eyeing me? It's a little uncomfortable, since I'm still self-conscious about using that fork and spoon. But here I see Thais using them in the proper way. Seems practical.
The star of this show is the Assorted Thai Fruits dessert. I order it knowing it's for several people, and thus far too much food for me alone. But I've got to see it.
It's worth it as an example of the Royal Thai style that, in times past, was prepared only in the Inner Palace, served only to royal and aristocratic families. Its trademark is artistic presentation, with vegetables and fruits carved into ornate designs.
Ornate it is: Eight small plates arrive, each with a different elaborately carved delicacy. Coconut flan in a teepee of banana leaves, fixed on a skewer. A whole, cored kiwi. Watermelon balls. Thai custard with pumpkin, carved into heart shapes. Sweet tofu paste fashioned into the shapes of church bells. Sweetened, shredded eggs spun into a Faberge-like nest. A chunk of pineapple carved in the shape of a pear.
Now all eight waitresses are using their peripherals on me. Clumsily, I pick up a bit of the flan with that mammoth spoon and experience the nirvanic bliss of its vivid, creamy sweetness.
Let 'em stare.
Another memorable meal was at the historic Oriental Hotel (part of the Mandarin Oriental group), where a small ferry carries dinner guests across the wide Chao Phraya River to its dinner/show complex, Sala Rim Naam, an ornate, Oriental-style building with a courtyard aglow with tiny, sparkling lights.
The slightly Westernized, $60 meal includes grilled chicken satay with peanut sauce, spiced banana blossom salad with shrimps, spicy prawn soup, sliced pork filet with water spinach curry, fried fish with plack pepper sauce, stir-fried vegetables with oyster sauce, and carved fresh tropical fruits and Thai sweets.
It also features elaborately costumed performers doing Thai folk dances such as Ram Koam Bua, the dance of the lotus lanterns honoring the moon and water goddesses.
But the most memorable day of my culinary week in Bangkok is the four-hour, $70 cooking class at The Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant.
Six other students and I are welcomed with a cool glass of lemon-grass tea. We include Tara Higgins of Belfast, returning home tomorrow after a 19-month stay, taking a last-minute chance to prove she learned something here; Haruyo Ishii, who runs a cooking school in Tokyo, widening her repertoire; Dorian Moss, a globe-trotting Corning Corp. engineer from New York who never knows what country he might wake up in, and wants to be able to cook himself a meal wherever.
Our teacher, Nooror Somany, a veteran of 24 years here, pops us onto Bangkok's swift, cool rapid transit system and takes us to the Or Tor Kor Cjatujak open-air market to choose ingredients.
It's vital, teeming, raucous, a little bit clean but still fragrant, a cornucopia of all things Thai. We meet jackfruit, pale yellow, pear flavored; dragonfruit, with wild, red leaves and white pulp with hundreds of black seeds; pomelo, a soccer-ball-size green fruit that tastes like a mild grapefruit. There are footlong green beans, zingy young Siamese ginger, fresh herbs we don't recognize.
There are big slabs of raw meat hanging everywhere. Giant bubbling vats of don't-ask. Catfish gutted, threaded on skewers, still bloody. "Haut quease-ine," Dorian jokes.
A RETURN TO CLASS
Back at the school, our teacher shows us how to prepare dishes. First is Som Tam -- Green Papaya Salad. She peels the papaya and hands it to an assistant who uses a machete to whack it into thin, vertical slices -- warning us not to try this at home.
She turns us loose in a big cooking lab to try the recipe: green papaya, garlic, bird's-eye chiles, those long green beans, roasted peanuts, dried shrimps, cherry tomatoes; the sauce is palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice.
We cook Keang Kaw Wan Kai: Green Curry Chicken. The curry sauce is coriander seeds, green Thai chiles, lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, cumin seeds, pulverized in mortar and pestle. Add it to chicken, coconut milk, eggplant, fish sauce, lime leaves and more chili.
We go on to make Tom Kha Kai Mapaow Paow, or Chicken Soup; the famous Pad Thai, or Stir-Fried Rice Noodles; Tom Yam Koong, or Sour & Spicy Prawn Soup.
Then we're taken into an elegant dining room where we have our creations for lunch, along with a red wine from Monsoon Valley winery, part of Thailand's fledgling wine industry: it's a blend of syrah, black muscat and a Thai grape called Pok Dum. Lightly bitter, it goes well.
Oh, and the vintage listed on the bottle is Buddhist Era 2544. I ask. It translates as 2001.