I was a lightweight as a child. Heck, I couldn't stand pepper. But that changed when I got to college. Having a number of Asian friends opened my mind and taste buds and now I love spicy dishes that are artfully flavoured. Meaning I don't dump hot sauce on noodles just because it is available and I want it spicier. Rather, I enjoy the kick when it is cooked into the dish as its normal flavour, which would explain why I enjoy Tex-Mex food a lot. I'm about to find out, though, that the Thai chili is a whole level above any Jalapeño pepper I could pick out of the supermarket.
Thai food is well known for its spice. So now if we dine out and order food family-style, we warn each other if the dish is "temperature hot" and/or "spicy hot." It really matters to make a differentiation.
A good indicator of how common chili is in their dishes is by looking at the cooking oil and spice aisle in a supermarket. Odds are one whole section of an entire shift, top to bottom, is dedicated to chili sauces and powders. Equal in quantity and selection of soy sauce in a Japanese store.
Thai chili peppers come in various types. The two I could discern in the stores are
prig chee fah- green, non-spicy peppers.
prig yoorng- a green pepper that is not spicy.
prig kee nu - the most common.
Picture to ensue.
A coworker made the point of trying to teach me:
mai phet - not spicey
But that was because he himself mastered "mai phet"! But, man, I wish I remember what he said was the proper terminology for "Thai Iced Tea" as we know it in the States.
Twice in one day, I found myself wishing my ears would explode to five me relief from the sudden onset of burning spice in my mouth. At lunch, over a simple "pork with basil" dish, I gobbled up my food, not realised how spicy the "just a little spicy" I asked for really was, until the pepper made contact with the back of my mouth, burning my throat, and oddly, ears. I felt like I had steam building up in my ear canals and needed to let the pressure out. I spent the rest of that hour sucking ice cubes and being mocked by my coworkers.
Later that evening, at a happy hour/dinner gathering, I munched my way through the popular local som tom, a papaya salad. It took a good few minutes after I swallowed my last bite for the spice to settle in. The surprise element was more of a factor than the scoville hotness that caught me unawares. Having your boss snigger and order a glass of water just for you certainly leaves an impression when it's promotion board time....