I tried to muster my most serious face, looking the waitress at Bangkok City, the Thai place on Bryan Street, straight in the eye.
"Native Thai spicy, please."
I'd ordered the crispy duck, a roasted half bird, fried until crisp and served with chili peppers onions and crunchy fried basil leaves. When my waitress nodded and continued taking the table's order, I felt as though I hadn't been clear. "I mean really spicy," I interrupted. "Pretend I'm not white. I want real, native Thai."
Now I had her attention. She understood. I wasn't just another pasty white person who comes in, demands an inferno and then recoils in horror as a dish ordered hot is actually hot, only to ask the kitchen start over and prepare it again. No, I was in the club. I wanted hot just like I'd get in Thailand.
And that's when I found out about the extra stars.
Bangkok City rates its spiciness with stars -- one star for gringo pussies, four for "Native Thai." But apparently the scale continues invisibly upward.
"Like five," I asked? No, she said. Higher. Seventeen stars were ordered just the other night, she said.
I scoffed. What does that mean? I tried to ask how you even measure out one or five or 17 units of heat. I pictured a star-shaped scoop, dipped into a massive plastic container of finely minced birds eye chilies, one star at a time.
As so many are, the waitress seemed thrown off by my inquisitiveness. She scurried back to the kitchen and returned not with an explanation but with an amendment. It was 20, actually. Twenty stars had been ordered once before.
"What if you ordered 100 stars?" I asked, picturing a massive pile of stir-fried capsicum crowned with a single slice of crispy duckling. My waitress looked at me like I'd been snorting lines of the stuff off the back of a roast duck. I was losing my street cred. I was also losing my nerve. What if I ordered 20 stars and then had to send the dish back?
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I wouldn't send it back, though. No, I'd suffer through the agonizing burn and go home wounded and broken. I wanted to enjoy my meal. I chickened out. I ordered four stars, Native Thai.
The duck was thinly sliced, crisp and seasoned with a thick and sweet sauce. The onions were cooling and crunchy and the fried basil leaves crowned the dish like crinkling green cellophane. It was warm, but not killer; I wished I'd ordered it a little hotter. But how hot should I go? How many stars?
I like when a dish is spiced just outside of my comfort level. I like that cool, sweaty sensation I get around my eyelids and a nice little sheen on my forehead. I like to burn, but not for days, and I still like to taste my food. Four stars was for sissies. Next time I'll do 4.0125 and really blow it out.
And there will be a next time. That duck was really good.