Thais like to think that their food is not only delicious and addictive, but that it is good for you, too. They consider the different combinations of herbs and spices in each dish to be medicine, and prescribe each dish accordingly. Feel like you are coming down with a cold? Well then tom yum goong (spicy lemongrass soup with shrimp) is the way to go. Are you a new mother who needs to produce more milk for her child? More gang liang (Southern Thai vegetable soup) for you.
Nam prik (chili dip) could also be considered a medicine, in as potent a form as Thai cuisine allows. There is no iteration of this Thai dinnertime staple that is seen as bad for you. My friend James calls it “high tea for healing herbs”, and I want to believe him, I really do. So I find myself on the hunt for a decent nam prik vendor that peddles the kind of healing I am looking for.
At the entrance to Sathorn Soi 11, open most workday mornings until 1pm, a som tum (green papaya salad) vendor works ceaselessly doling out parcels of fried meat and freshly pounded Thai-style som tum to hungry office workers on the way back to their desks. I find this a terrible waste, since she is one of the few vendors here who sells both soup kanoon (young jackfruit salad) and soup makuea (Thai eggplant salad, a particular favorite of mine), two dishes that are like nam prik writ large. When I saw the tiny little baggies of jackfruit and eggplant glistening in the sun, I turned to her and asked whether it really truly was thum kanoon she was offering, because it is a dish that is inexplicably difficult to find in Bangkok, even in Northern Thai restaurants.
I was met with a “Huh?” because in Isaan, a Northern Thai thum turns into a soup. That is not the only difference. An Isaan-style soup is also right up on the edge of being unrelentingly, unbearably spicy, a sort of cry in the dark that can be stifled with a spoonful of rice or a handful of cucumber slices and hard-boiled egg should the need take you. A lot has been made by well-meaning people of the need for “chicken soup for the soul”, but to my mind, there is more of a need for some motherfreaking napalm for the tongue, something that means business, something strong enough to pull you out of a serious, sleep-addled funk. If this is medicine, bring me more. But not too much because yikes, that was hot.