The spice hits me in the back of the throat and I cough.
“Spicy?” Kelly asks me.
“Just a little,” I reply and take a sip of water. My watering eyes belie the fact that I am fibbing. I stir my green curry and find tiny, red Thai chilies hiding underneath the quarters of Chinese eggplant and pieces of chicken.
I’m sitting in Black Canyon Coffee, a local Thai chain with an extensive food menu and my first reaction to the spice level is surprise.
“I can’t believe it’s so spicy,” I say. “You’d never get something like this in the U.S. from a chain.” That’s not shocking – food offered in American chains leans heavily on salt and fat to add flavor. It would make sense that a Thai chain would cater toward its clientele and pump up the spice factor.
The curry has me taking large gulps of a sweet, milky coffee to help mitigate my burning mouth. My lips tingle like the static of an empty radio wave. I am smiling after my last bite. I look forward to the feel-good rush fiery food offers once the adrenaline has kicked in.
We bought grilled liver kebabs from a street cart in Bangkok on accident, but they were delicious. The burning charcoal gave the liver a deep smokiness. It was creamy and a little gritty and coated the tongue in a not unpleasant way.
I start to wonder. How many dishes do we like because we like them and how many do we like because our culture tells us so? Is something western palates find disgusting inherently disgusting or just our cultural teachings weighing in? Do we even know it’s happening?
Not everyone gets this chance to come to terms with food in a new way, to think about their preferences, and why certain flavors appeal to us.
I lean back in my chair, stomach full. I could get used to this.