One of the many reasons we fell in love with SE Asia was the food. When we arrived in Chiang Mai in 2000, we left our little hotel on the Ping River to look for food–-our very first meal in Thailand. We drifted down the street, and finally settled on a small place with it’s name written in Thai script, incomprehensible to us. It did, however, have a tiny sign in the window saying “Food & Drink.” Good enough–-food and drink was exactly what we wanted! I still remember the dishes we ordered: tom kha gai, the intensely spicy coconut and chicken soup, which we ate with stir-fried fiddlehead ferns, fried snakehead fish, and sticky rice served in small woven baskets.
In the U.S., we’d frequently had tom kha gai. A standard in every Thai restaurant then and now, it normally was rendered a little bland to appeal to sensitive American palates. So what a treat awaited us in Thailand! The soup was so spicy, we had to stop after each spoonful or two for some soothing sticky rice. But it was delicious to the point we couldn’t stop eating it, even with flames raging out of our mouths, eyes, ears, and tear ducts. Every spoon also yielded a bite or two of galangal root, lemongrass, and/or kaffir leaf, all of which defied chewing, but made the soup unforgettable. The ferns and snakehead fish (a species of which we were completely unaware of until that moment) were also a revelation of Thai flavors. Washed down with two jumbo-sized Singha beers, the total for the evening came to $7.00.
We’ve eaten so very many memorable meals in Thailand since then, everything from street food to fine dining at Michelin-starred restaurants. But none had a greater impact than our first dinner in Chiang Mai, when we were forced to throw everything we thought we knew about Thai food out the window.