I am lined up at a Bangkok street cart to get me some of a local favourite — som tham, a.k.a. green papaya salad. I know the drill. I'll point at my favourite side dish — roast chicken — and then at the bowl of Thai chilies, holding up two fingers to indicate my preferred level of heat. Two chilies give me a substantial but not overwhelming afterburn. In a few days I may work my way up to three chilies. But not yet. Got to get back in shape.
Ahead of me is a teenage girl, sporting braces and a school uniform. In response to her order the street chef reaches into her chili bowl and scoops up a fistful that makes me gasp audibly. "How many?" I ask. She holds up fingers — all of them. Ten chilies. I'm being schooled by a schoolgirl. What manner of beings are these, impervious to searing heat at both entry and exit? I feel like a tourist visiting the Sun.
It's probably wrong to identify som tham as the Thai national dish. For one thing neighbouring Laos would take issue — they claim it as their own. But then, Canadians probably didn't invent hockey either. Thais have adopted and adapted som tham, making it a national staple peddled in various forms from street carts around the country.
It took me a while to discover it. I once thought the papaya slivers that fill glass cases on near-ubiquitous street carts around Bangkok were actually sliced onion. One day I watched as a street chef whipped up a batch for a woman on her lunch break. The chef dumped a welter of ingredients into a stone bowl — garlic, dried shrimp, peanuts, tomatoes, green beans, lime, peanuts, fish sauce, chilies, sugar, and who knows what else, followed by a pile of those green-white slivers. She then worked and pounded the mixture with a pestle (som tham translates as "sour pounded"). The customer offered me a spoonful. She was Thai, which meant that my first taste of som tham seemed like a lesson akin to the first time a cow bumps into an electric fence. Teary-eyed and panting, I was still trying to cool my palate with doses of coconut dessert 15 minutes later. It wasn't an experience I planned to repeat.
Then it was explained to me that som tham vendors cater to all sorts of tastes. Customers specify not just the number of chilies but the preferred style. The Isaan variation, named for the northeast region of Thailand famous for its culinary traditions, involves more fish sauce and a little black crab, which Isaan diners will crunch up whole. Not for me, thanks. I'll take the Thai variety. Thai som tham is a little miracle of culinary complexity, by turns clean and refreshing, spicy, nutty, sweet, sour, with a lingering aftertaste that seems to mingle all of those sensations without that being overwhelmed by the warm glow of the chilies (unless of course you're a kick-ass 10-chili schoolgirl). It's typical to pair up your salad with a sliced up piece of roast chicken and a patty of sticky rice. The side dish of motorcycle exhaust is free.
Side of Fumes
That's another integral part of the Thai som tham experience — you're probably sucking up some fumes along with your meal. My favourite vendor is located a couple of blocks from the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station, close to the Chao Praya River. Typically for an operation like this, the cheap tables and plastic stools are set up in what is basically a motorbike parking lot. As I eat, a maneuvering motorbike comes inches away from my table before nimbly backing away. Shortly afterwards I notice a stealthy hand reaching for my shoulder bag, perched on a little stool behind me. It's no sneak thief — just a polite scooter pilot gently trying to squeeze his bike through this makeshift restaurant.
Actually this set-up is an oasis of calm compared to some. Street carts, those that offer seating at all, typically occupy little patches of sidewalk where diners jostle with everything and everybody. A Bangkok sidewalk is to its typical North American cousin as baroque opera is to Philip Glass. Once you get past the vendors who sell anything from mangosteens, to brooms, to ankle socks, the patio umbrellas and low ropes that tie canopies to nearby trees, the pushcarts, motorbikes, wandering blind singers led by guides, and the cook stands that marinate stretches of walkway with pungent aromas occasionally pleasant and just as occasionally gag-inducing, the space left for opposing streams of pedestrians can be narrower than the path to salvation. The experience is either hellish, or the whole point of your visit.
In the chaos of a Bangkok street you find your anchor points, such as a really good som tham vendor. A couple at the next table — a Thai woman named Wai and her German boyfriend Will — agree that this particular stand is run by an artist. "She's one of the best," says Wai.
Wai is from Bangkok. Like me, she has heard people express a preference for quieter, more tourist-friendly Chiang Mai. "Chiang Mai is nothing," she says with disdain. "Nothing. Bangkok has everything."
It's not for everybody. It's not even for me every single day. But there's more to Bangkok than any other city I know. There are even plenty of McDonald's if you're interested, and I notice those are popular with schoolgirls too. Takes all kinds to make a classroom.