Phet Mak Som Tam

Thai food served in the USA offers a mild version of the traditional meals offered in Bangkok restaurants. Most farangs order phad thai or fried noodles at Thai restaurants and specify that they don’t want it spicy or phed. I rarely have seen Thais dine on phad thai. Their palette is well accustomed to chili-dosed salads and soups with som tam or spicy papaya salad being the national favorite.

While everyone eats som tam or sour pounded salad, the true devotees to the dish are women.

They will drop everything to sit down for a communal meal of som tam. Each forkful is accompanied by the smacking of lips in delight of the four flavors of sour lime, hot chili, salty, savory fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar. Afterwards the eater inhaled a swift intake of breath or seet to outset the burning sensation of the hot chilis.

I like som tam and can handle the heat, although some farangs have died after eating too much.

Over the years I’ve asked Thais why they like such spicy foods.

The men don’t have an answer, because in fact they don’t like spicy food.

The women say chilis helps your health by strengthening your immune systems and cardiovascular systems.

“They save food for go bad.” Thailand is a warm country and food spoils fast, but one night at Mam’s village in Bannok I said to a gathering of females on a bamboo mat around a big bowl of som tom, “I know the real reason why som tam is phet mak.”

“What can you know about Thai food?” an old woman asked while pouring a beer.

“One, I used to think that the reason Thai women ate som tam was so they could get drunk of beer.”

Her friends laughed at the wizened crone, who had name two of her children after Thai beers.

“Chilis aren’t from Thailand.”

“Everything come from Thailand?” The old crone lisped through her betel-ruined teeth.

“Not everything. Chili first come from Mexico, then farang bring to Thailand four hundred years ago.” The Spanish galleons were laden with silver from Potosi and chilis from Jalisco. “First Thais not eat chili, but etiquette in Thailand is that man eats first and then children and women. Thai women are tired of eating bones and decide to add chili to food. Afterward men stop eating so much.”

“And men drink more.” The old crone crowed with a sharp laugh.

“Mao mao mao.”

“So it’s right, you tried to poison the men.”

“Not poison. Just not make them so hungry.” The old puying filled my beer glass. “Dim.”

We clinked glasses and drank our beers.

They passed me a plate of som tam. I had a few bites.

“Phet?” Mam asked with my son on her lap.

“Not at all.” I lied, fighting not to drain my beer.

No one in America has ever eaten Thai food.

It is fucking phet mak.

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