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."