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Overcoming a Fear of Spicy Food in Thailand

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I have never been a fan of spicy foods.  I was always the one that thought that something was spicy when no one else did, gulping down water and wiping tears from my eyes.  That was until I tried the food in Thailand.

My taste buds just haven’t been the same since!   The food in Thailand is an alchemy of flavors; sweet and spicy, salty and bitter, all balanced in amazing culinary harmony.

Papaya salad does not sound like a particularly intimidating dish, nor does its simple presentation give much of a hint about the spiciness that lies beneath the surface.

Thai Papaya Salad food in thailandPapaya salad (also known as som tam) consists of shredded green papaya with a cast of characters that can include chiles, peanuts, sprouts, green beans, garlic and lime juice.

This innocuous dish is said to be one of the spiciest varieties of food in Thailand, and the reason for this reputation becomes quite evident about 15 seconds after putting the first bite in your mouth.

The burn starts slowly, giving you you the false confidence that you can continue to eat more.  Before you know it, the heat has spread over your tongue like a wildfire that nothing seems to quench.

Despite the burning, I continued to eat because the unique flavors combined with the crunchy texture of the raw, green papayas makes a dish unlike anything else that I have ever tasted.

I not only survived my encounter, but thoroughly enjoyed it!  The burn slowly faded, and as the feeling slowly returned to my tongue, I realized that some of the fear that I had about spicy foods had faded as well.  A whole new realm of culinary experimentation had been opened up before me.

A couple of night later, I felt emboldened by my encounter with the Som Tam and I decided to push my boundaries a little further.

Tom Yum soup had been recommended to my as the next possible outlet for my culinary experimentation. It sounded safe enough.  Spicy Chicken soup with lemon grass and vegetables.  I enthusiastically ordered it for my dinner that evening.Thai chili peppers food in thailand

It arrived in a giant earthenware crock.  Without delay I anxiously picked up my spoon and started eating.

I had a moment of fear return when I asked my husband to try some and it was even a little too hot for him.  Had I gotten myself into more than I could handle?

After a few bites my mouth was on fire, and I could rapidly feel my tastebuds becoming numb.

Water did nothing to quench the blaze, yet I kept eating, spoonful after spoonful, because the flavors of the lemongrass and herbs mixed with the spicy chiles were so fresh and vibrant that I had to keep eating.  Every.  Last. Bite.

Since our return, I am happy to report that I have been readily consuming foods that were previously considered “much too spicy” and I feel like the sky is the limit to my new culinary horizons.  Anybody have any advice on what I should try next?

What is your favorite spicy, foreign food?


Have your food and travel tastes changed as a result of a specific place that you have visited?  Have you become more adventurous in your food choices as a result of travel?


Shanna Schultz

Hello, my name is Shanna, and I am a detail obsessed travel addict on a mission to make planning your own family trips fun and easy! I offer tools, guides and resources to help you through all of the steps of planning meaningful, memorable family vacations. Come over and check out our Facebook community where I share real tools and resources to help you move the needle on your travel goals. Let's start making those travel dreams real, y'all! Life is too short to spend dreaming...let's start DOING!

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Oh my god, Thai food is SOOOO spicy! Kali and I honestly can’t handle spicy food at all, which is ironic because our two favorite cuisines are Indian and Thai. So we always ask for it super mild… like, so mild a baby could eat it. We get laughed at, but at least we can eat delicious food w/o dying. 😛

    1. Shanna Schultz

      I think that it is likely that the only reason it seems to be getting easier for me to eat the spicy foods is because my taste buds are being burned off one by one.

  2. Erica

    Though I do love Thai food, my absolute favorite spicy food must be schezuan food. I have to eat it with plenty of milk and some tissue (to paint a pretty picture) but all the pain is so worth it.

  3. Susan

    Alright. I know what I’m having for dinner now!

    Speaking of somtam, I accidentally ordered the Isaan version of the papaya salad and nearly gagged the entire time. LIttle crab legs stick out in every direction, so you can never tell if the bite you’re shoveling into your mouth is actually going to be chewable without breaking your teeth. And the sauce was so gross and syrup, like fermented crab corn syrup. Lesson learned: always order “somtam” and somtam only.

    1. Shanna Schultz

      Wow, that sounds traumatizing…you are a brave soul. One look at the little crabs and I that is as far as I would have gotten.

  4. Cole @ Four Jandals

    I have the weakest tongue when it comes to spicy food. But always enjoy eating it even though my entire face breaks out in sweat (super gross I know)! Love to visit Thailand some day soon 🙂

    1. Shanna Schultz

      Sweating is good for you…kind of like exercise without the work! Thailand was amazing, and super cheap, but it is a really long way to fly.

  5. Leo Tat

    I grew up on Vietnamese and Chinese food, so I am used to eating raw chilies. The first time I tried papaya salad was in Bangkok in a small family owned street restaurant on a street corner. They didn’t have an English menu, and they could speak English. So we just pointed at the dishes the Thai were eating. When it came to the papaya salad, the chef (owner) asked me how much chili (body language and holding chili). I just said a little bit, pinching my fingers together. He took half a hand full of red chillis, threw it in salad and mince mixed it. I was slightly shocked, but I wanted to try it since that must be how much the locals eat. Wow, it was hot. After a while, my tongue went numb, so I could take it from then on. But then my stomach felt the heat lol. Local Thai’s can really eat their chilies hardcore.

  6. Kaspars Misins

    True, Thai food can be very spicy, but you also feel all these different flavors. While in India, especially in more rural areas, if it’s spicy, then it doesn’t matter if it’s curry or aloo gobi, whatever is the dish everything tastes the same. And that’s something that I find annoyting with Indian food.

  7. Bahar

    Oh, I can’t taste even a bit because of the spicy taste, but I really hope to visit this country soon.

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