This is an excellent article about the author’s evolution from the machismo of ordering everything ‘Thai Spicy’ to avoid getting under-seasoned/over-sweet food made for the Western palate, and ordering correctly to get food that is spiced the way it is supposed to be. The author focuses on Thai food, and gives examples of phrases to use while ordering, but the concept can be used in any restaurant, even if you don’t speak the language.
It is well-written, and some of the comments are worth reading, as well.
I’ve traveled extensively, most of it before I was twenty, and have experienced a lot of food as it was meant to be served. Reproducing foreign cuisine in an American restaurant is a challenge. At the same time, reproducing distinctly American foods, like pizza, can be a challenge for foreign restaurants. I remember being horribly disappointed when I ordered an almost inedible pizza from a restaurant in Rome in the 1970’s. I was ten or so, and didn’t recognize the other items on the menu, so I ordered something ‘safe’. Boy, was I wrong. I hope it has gotten somewhat better since then.
I traveled to Mexico several different times, mainly to the ‘tourist trap’ locations, and didn’t really find the food all that different from home. Then I signed up for a foreign-exchange program, which sent me to a small town about two hours northwest of Mexico City. The food there was exquisite, memorable, and spicy. I loved it.
Then, in my twenties, I used to order everything so spicy it would burn going in, through, and on the way out… but after a while, that got old. The discomfort did nothing for my machismo, and it really didn’t impress anyone who watched me sweat while eating. They just thought I was being silly.
I eventually learned exactly how I liked my food by learning how to prepare it, which meant I created more than a few inedible dishes along the way that my wife and kids choked down just to be nice, or because they were starving at the time. I’ve never attended cooking school, though I would have liked to (and maybe my family would have liked me to). My family gave me cookbooks for Christmas, hoping I would learn, but I wasn’t one to follow recipes. I just threw stuff together with inaccurate measurements, by taste or smell, and sometimes ended up with amazing results. I got better by trial and error and lots of experience. Now, almost everything that comes out of my kitchen is guaranteed edible, and sometimes surprisingly tasty.
But ordering at a restaurant and getting what I want or expect — that has always been a challenge. I think I’ll try some of the phrases from the article (or their English translations) the next time I go out to eat. “Ta mai pet, mai arroy,” or “If it’s not spicy, it doesn’t taste good.” Alternately, saying “Prepare it how you would want it” or “Make it like you would back home” can also yield good results. It sounds like they work well for him, and for a few who commented.