One thing I missed while living in Vermont was honest to goodness Thai food. Sure, we had restaurants that claimed to be “Thai,” but they found that in order to stay in business in New England, they had to make their food as bland and tasteless as the rest of the New England fare (sorry folks, but it’s true).
So, I got pretty good at making homemade Thai food, since that was the only way we’d get anything close to authentic. If our eyes didn’t water, it wasn’t hot enough yet. It helped that I’d had cooking lessons from a friend who was a missionary in Thailand, as well as some cooking classes at the community college where I worked.
Here’s what I know about Thai food, the traditional stuff. It’s a balance of flavors: hot, sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. To have a true Thai dish, you must have a balance of ALL these elements. Too much sour, and you pucker up like a prune. Too much sweet, and you turn into, well, the typical American teenager. Too much heat, and you’re too busy assuaging your mucus membranes to notice much else.
When I teach people to cook Thai food, I like to start out with a simple appetizer, one that combines all these elements: Mieng-Khum. Basically, these are little wraps, rolls of cabbage, lime, or basil leaves, filled with a variety of pungent ingredients. The options include elements from all the taste categories. There are dried shrimp for the saltiness, chopped ginger, chillies, and onion for the heat, chunks of lime for sourness, toasted coconut for sweetness, and the leaves, chopped peanuts, and lime rinds provide the bitter. It’s up to each person to decide how much of each ingredient to roll within their leaf.
If I’m teaching a group of Americans how to cook Thai food, inevitably, they’ll resist putting any of the “hot” elements in the wrap, especially those scary looking Thai chilies. I usually have to throw a hissy fit to convince them to try it, and then, they finally begin to understand the whole concept of balance. After a few practice wraps, they start gauging how much each flavor will contribute to the appropriate balance that they want to achieve. And heat must be a part of it. You need the heat to be complete.
We Americans, we just don’t like the heat. I don’t know when we became pansies, but sometime in our nation’s history, we decided that peppers were painful and wrong. We forgot that the pain is all part of the overall scheme of pleasure. It’s just one of the flavors, designed to be balanced with all the others.
Our food tastes have translated to our lifestyles (or visa versa). We spend much of our lives avoiding pain. We can’t take the heat, so we do everything we can to secure our comfort, forgetting that sometimes pain is part of life, it is part of the process that makes life worth living.
The apostle Paul could handle the heat. He was a man familiar with pain and suffering, and he encourages us to view our suffering in the context of God’s work in our lives, to be joyful, in the midst of pain and loss: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Sure, suffering, all by itself isn’t a lot of fun, but when you mix it with the sweetness of salvation, you end up filled with complete joy.
So, I’ll take mine with three stars, just as long as there’s plenty of sugar, lime, basil, and fish sauce in there for balance.