If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, then you know I have a penchant for Asian cuisine. Whenever I find myself on the continent, a large portion of my agenda is dedicated to eating. However between all the bites I’ve enjoyed from market stalls and more formal restaurant meals, my culinary journeys have not been without a few stumbles. While often proving to be a provocative assault on both body and senses, these blunders are some of the experiences I remember most from my travels.
Recently, I made my way to Columbia Street in Brooklyn to dine at a restaurant being hailed by critics as both incredible and authentic. Pok Pok NY is a must try for any foodie. As a serious lover of Thai cuisine, it was just a matter of time before I braved the long line of diners waiting to get into this hot, Cobble Hill eatery.
One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is Papaya Pok Pok, known in Thailand as som tum. This sweet, sour and spicy papaya salad is one of my favorites, and whenever I am lucky enough to find myself in Thailand, I often eat it for both lunch and dinner.
When it comes to Thai food, my motto has always been ‘go som tum or go home’…until one sleepy day on Koh Samui’s Chaweng Beach ,when I spotted an elderly Thai woman muddling up som tom for beach-goers. Imagine my excitement as I grew closer and saw her using a traditional mortar and pestle to mix up the delicious blend of green papaya, long bean, tomato, peanut and a smattering of sweet and sour accompaniments. When it came time to add in the Thai chili, I decided to speak up.
The pepper looked so small and wimpy-like, I was certain there would not be enough heat to satisfy my adventurous palate. “Two peppers,” I exclaimed. The lady looked at me like I had five heads, so I assured her I knew my som tum. As I sweated through the entire plate, my ears began ringing more than once. Long after I downed the last bite of papaya salad, my mouth was still on fire.
I thought I had learned my lesson about my tolerance to chili back then… until my visit to Pok Pok NY several years later. In addition to the more ubiquitous version of som tum, Pok Pok NY makes one that’s Isaan style– served with salted black crab, plaa raak and dry chilies. Feeling adventurous, I decided that’s what I would order.
The look of alarm in the eyes of my tatted-up, hipster Pok Pok server took me right back to the beach in Thailand. As he warned me the dish would be spicy–perhaps the spiciest plate Pok Pok NY had—I felt my culinary defiance awaken, and assured him I’d be fine.
Long story short, five years after my first pepper incident–you guessed it–my ears were ringing and my mouth was on fire. What seemed to be a harmless plate of tantalizing papaya magic, turned into chili-tolerance lesson #2.
Although ingredients, flavors and culinary technique are important, often it’s the experience of dining itself that can take you around the world. And in a city like New York, with its staggering abundance of culturally diverse cuisines, there’s a very good chance you’ll be transported too.
Featured image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Sarita Dan