Tropic of Capsaicin
An Exploration of the Hot Dishes in a Hot City, Or Where to Go When You're Not at Waterloo Park
Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad) at Thai Kitchen803 E. William Cannon, 445-4844;
3437 Bee Caves Rd., 328-3538;
3009 Guadalupe, 474-2575
Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-9:30pm
This salad is a traditional street food of Northern Thailand, and one of my favorite chile-pepper dishes. It is fiery hot, yet strangely refreshing. The salad consists of shredded green papaya tossed with lime juice, fish sauce, tiny dried shrimp, and plenty of chopped Thai hot chiles. At Thai Kitchen, julienne green beans and quartered tomatoes complete the dish, which is served with a generous scoop of fragrant steamed jasmine rice. This salad represents everything I love about Thai cuisine: the juxtaposition of textures, temperatures, and flavors. The green papaya is crunchy and cool, the rice smooth and warm. The fish sauce and dried shrimp add a salty fishiness that balances with the tangy lime juice and the sweet tomatoes. And the green and red speckles of fresh Thai chile provide the punch to kick-start the taste buds. A word of warning: Thai chiles are some of the hottest in the world, and this dish can be painfully hot. At Thai Kitchen, I always order it "less hot," and even then I have to eat it carefully to avoid the sometimes-hidden chile chunks, those tiny, super-hot land mines for the mouth. I love it.