Last summer, I participated in a mission trip to Thailand and, although I never hesitate to travel to a new country, a fear arises when I realize I have no idea what I’ll eat for two weeks. The tropical country in Southeast Asia would present a variety of new fruits, distinctive spices, and ancient ways of preparing dishes–my anxious taste buds anticipated flavorful discoveries.
On one of my first days in Thailand, my group sailed on a small boat to a riverside restaurant after visiting ancient Cambodian-inspired ruins. To accommodate for my group of 12, our leaders gave us two options to pick from at any restaurant we would eat at. For the most part, our choices were rice with either pork or chicken. At this particular spot, the rice and pork was a meal fitting for the hot and humid afternoon of touring.
Before lunch, we were warned of the fondness Thais had for fiery spices in their meals. I, a Venezuelan-American with no tolerance for spices hotter than ketchup, had no intention of expanding this particular aspect of my palate. But, as what often happens when traveling, plans changed.
My plate arrived, looking like any usual rice and pork meal should: fried rice on the left with pork on the right. I delved into my meal while chatting with my group members until I started to feel a sting on my lips. Along with the others who ordered the pork, we ultimately spotted the diced red chiles in the crevices of our rice piles. The stinging persisted through the tip of my tongue, while a burn extended down my throat with each swallow.
My group members and I quickly took gulps from our glasses of water–no amount would calm the sharp heat of the spice. Twenty-three times hotter than a jalapeño, the Thai chile would continue to prickle my mouth for the rest of the afternoon.
Despite my unexpected encounter with one of the world’s hottest spices, I tasted numerous Thai meals during my two-week trip. My fear of trying new foods dissipated after that afternoon, which granted me freedom to be daring with my palate. From the world’s smelliest fruit of durian to fresh iced coffee, Thailand allowed me to experience flavors I would not find back home in the States.
With all things regarding travel, fear arises from the unknown. The excitement of landing in a new city, state, or country is partly due to our confrontation with unfamiliarity. The distance from home, whether geographically or culturally, pushes us to either close off from things foreign, or be daring enough to try something new.
The next time a familiar dish features an unexpected element, the privilege of eating local cuisine reigns. My spicy meal was the gateway to the culture in Thailand, even if my tastebuds weren’t prepared for it.