Isaan Spice

The spiciest som tum in Bangkok?

It’s only been a few weeks since I left Isaan, but I’m never far from an order of freshly pounded som tum (green papaya salad). So when a production team foolishly hired me as a fixer, I was jazzed to be sent — nay, ordered — to check out what was purported to be the purveyor of the spiciest som tum in Bangkok.

I feel like som tum (and, really, all of Isaan food) kind of gets a bad rap. People rave about the flavors and the inventiveness of the cuisine, but no one ever considers the technique. The fact is, like with pretty much every popular dish in the world, not everyone can make a successful som tum. Like a good wok cook, you need swift hands, a deft palate, a fearlessness around heat (but the chili splatter kind), and patience. In other words, you need technique.

But people think of som tum as just another salad, probably because of its less-than-ideal translation to English: green papaya salad. The fact is that, aside from the fact that it should be made a la minute, this dish has less in common with a salad than a stirfry: the flavors must be melded, and it doesn’t even have to be made out of green papaya. It can be made out of anything.

At Som Tum Nong Rejoice (aka Som Tum Jo Jo or Som Tum Nong Rejoice Jo Jo), the restaurant goes through maybe 50 kg of chilies a day. There’s a reason for that: almost everything in this restaurant, aside from the grilled pork and chicken wings, is liberally, even extravagantly, dripping in chilies. Never mind that chilies were an imported ingredient back in the 1600s when the Portuguese hit Siamese shores, and that the real local spice is peppercorns (prik Thai), just like everywhere else in Southeast Asia. Today, Thais have taken to chilies like their entire identities depend on it, rendering Thai cuisine spicy beyond what people remember from only a couple of decades ago, even in Isaan.

The sign at the restaurant

(Photo by Karen Blumberg)

Like chefs with their omelet pans and their woks, good som tum cooks have favorite mortars and pestles that they cherish like children, typically made of a scented fruit wood like tamarind or mango (the mortars, not the children). The longer a set is used, the more valuable it becomes. Nong Rejoice is no different, with its enormous mortar and a specially made pestle resembling a blunt-nosed headhunter’s spear. That mortar is special, reserved specifically for the “dressing” of restaurant’s most popular dish: a mash-mash somtum of green papaya strands, raw shrimp, fermented rice noodles, blood cockles, and bamboo shoots. Although the rule is typically that you make the sauce with the salad in the same mortar, Nong Rejoice is confident enough that the som tum will sell that they make it in advance. Like many other places, the sauce incorporates fermented anchovy juice (pla rah); unlike many others, it mixes dried chilies with the fresh to max the spice level.

It would seem impossible for someone like me to eat, a mere dilettante in the world of spice, but I managed and didn’t even get sick (unlike the case with my dancing shrimp adventure on the banks of the Mekong). That might be because the dressing also includes equal measures of white sugar, palm sugar and sugar syrup to counteract the extreme spiciness of the chilies. Is it the spiciest? I have to admit, I might have tried spicier up in the Northeast. It is really spicy, though. Another discovery: the gai super, an exorbitantly chili-laced stew of chicken feet and one of my dad’s favorite dishes.

As for the grilled pork collar and chicken wings, they were absolutely delicious, juicy and perfectly grilled. They were also sweet, but instead of irritating me, I understood it as necessary when paired with the volcanic-level fire of the soups and salads. An added bonus was discovering that the grilled meats were cooked, char siu-style, by hanging them in makeshift ovens made from Thai water vessels.

Not pretty, but delicious

I have to say, don’t expect pristine Jay Fai-level cleanliness (or even Wattanapanich-level cleanliness) at Nong Rejoice. This place is as “down home” as it gets in Bangkok, replete with flies and less-than-ideal kitchen conditions. That said, why would you be eating Thai street food if you are precious about your surroundings? There’s a wide cushion for squalor in that kind of realm, no? Strap your foodie blinders on and go for the spice, go for the endorphin rush, go for the sensation. It’s the most Thai thing you could possibly do nowadays.

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