Spicing Things Up

I had eaten everything from vegan bacon to blood sausage. Now it was time to seek a new holy grail

I had eaten everything from vegan bacon to blood sausage. Now it was time to seek a new holy grail of culinary extremes: a cuisine hot enough to hurt me.I wanted to sear away my taste buds. I wanted tears to stream out of my eyes. I wanted something more wicked than wasabi and more nuanced than Tabasco. What I wanted, in short, was real Thai food.The kind of Thai food served in the average Cambridge Thai restaurant caters to a mild palate. I was afraid that if I tackled the meal alone, waiters would not take my request seriously. I needed, in journalism parlance, a “fixer”: a sage who could nimbly guide me through a forest of unfamiliar names and progressively more exotic forms of heat.He came in the form of Anthropology Professor Michael Herzfeld. After having done fieldwork in Thailand, he was a foodie fluent in the language of spice, and spoke of Thai pepppers, mysterious things literally translated as “mouse shit” peppers. (In Thai, “shit” is used as an intensifier.) He also showed photos of curries that would make people raised on boiled potatoes convulse in fear.Called “phrik khii nuu,” the Thai “mouse shit” pepper is rated on the Scoville Scale as very hot, with a Scoville Rating of 50,000 to 100,000. The scale measures the spice’s amount of Capsaicin, the chemical compound responsible for all that is burning, tingling, and masochistic about eating spicy food. Law enforcement-grade pepper spray clocks in at an SR rating of 500,000–5,300,000.Just as marathon runners run, I began a training regimen of a Thai-style hot sauce called Sriracha, served in the dining halls as a squeeze bottle with a green nozzle. My 8 a.m. wake-ups included breakfast pizza slathered in hot sauce. After two weeks of this, I escalated the pain by slapping on habanero Tabasco at abandon in addition to Sriracha. Herzfeld picked a Thai restaurant in Harvard Square called Aiyara (16 Eliot St., 617-497-8288), formerly named Smile Thai Cafe until it switched hands recently. He deemed its food “about as close to the real thing as I’ve ever eaten Stateside.” So on an ordinary Monday night, I went to Aiyara with my taste buds at a lifetime apex of pain tolerance.Herzfeld made his way across Mass. Ave with his wife Mia and Professor Theodore C. Bestor, who teaches Social Analysis 70: “Food and Culture.” He sported a small moustache and an accent cultivated across the pond. Herzfeld greeted the waiter with a small bow, hands pressed together. He then ordered in Thai.“The hottest food you get in America is unlikely to be as particularly hot as in Thailand,” Herzfeld warned me.We started off with bowls of tom yum soup, filled with shrimp and slices of mushroom. Small chili flakes and a smattering of mean-looking oil floated about ominously on its surface.The meal began abysmally. With my first mouthful, I choked on some chili flakes and spent a few minutes sputtering and speechless. Herzfeld’s wife handed me some Kleenex.I had tripped on the starting line. Thankfully, the next two dishes—a beef satay with peanut sauce and “Tod Man Pla,” or fish cakes—were not spicy. I had ample time to recover.In the meantime, Herzfeld imparted bits of Thai food trivia. The spicier Thai food got, he explained, the more you could taste the underlying ingredient.“The metaphor I like is a fireworks display: an initial explosion followed by a fireworks display of the various flavors of the different spices,” Herzfeld said.If in the course of adventurous eating you get burned, stay away from water. “Water weakens your saliva,” Herzfeld said. “If you’re being burned by something spicy, the trick is to eat rice.”We then started on a platter of “Nua Yang Nam Tok,” or Waterfall Beef. The recipe calls for fish sauce and ground dried red chilis. I took a bite.It had a bit of a kick, but I didn’t find it painful at all.This was followed by a dish of green papaya salad, composed of long shreds of papaya with bean sprouts, green beans, shrimp, and peanuts, then dusted in ground chili. This was significantly spicier, like Ashlee Simpson, post-punk makeover. It actually got spicier as it cooled. I ate it with sticky rice served in a small woven container.Noting that I had not collapsed, Herzfeld requested that our dishes be made spicier. “He’s worried about her,” Herzfeld said of the waiter’s trepidation. Maybe I should have worn khakis and combat boots instead of a skirt. Then came a trio of delicious but unfrightening dishes: penang, with carrots, peas, and strips of chicken in a red curry, then ground chicken with basil (I doused it in sodium-laden fish sauce), and finally, “Stir Fry of a Shit Drunk Man.” You know, drunken noodles.I wasn’t sure whether to feel disappointed or victorious. The food had definitely not been nuclear spicy, so I decided to make a final run for culinary extremes. I fished out a few infamous Thai “mouse shit” peppers from the pot of fish sauce. I popped them straight into my mouth.The two professors looked at me expectantly. I chewed. And swallowed.The burn was not a lot worse than a hit of Sriracha. They looked impressed. But later, as my body tried to digest the banquet, my stomach tingled and shuddered, a little angry at the introduction of straight-up chili pepper. I was proud. I felt that much more authentic.