I like spicy food. Really, I do! Apparently I do not yet appreciate that not all spicy foods are created equal, and the world cuisines in which spiciness is a prominent feature can be vastly different in the intensity and use of heat.
Last Saturday I was excited to try my first recipe from Nancie McDermott's Real Vegetarian Thai. I chose a very simple recipe, Red Curry with Sweet Red Peppers, Snow Peas, and Tofu (p. 96 in my copy), but I substituted ~1 c. broccoli florets for the snow peas. The recipe calls for 1-2 tbsp. of red curry paste. I had on hand Thai Kitchen's Red Curry Paste, and I used a conservative 1 tbsp. of it to keep the heat under control. Boy, was I completely wrong! As I was cooking the curry, the smell of coconut milk mingling with curry paste was irresistible, and I couldn't wait to try it. In keeping with Thai tradition, I ate my curry over freshly made Thai jasmine rice, but I got too greedy. Since the sauce smelled amazing, I figured it would taste just as good, and I spooned a generous amount of it over my rice. The result was that I could have breathed fire as I tried to eat my dinner. The heat of the curry paste was overpowering; my nose was running, and my mouth and lips were burning. I had to gulp down water after every bite to quench the flames! Eventually I gave up and decided I would eat the rest of the curry with a mountain of rice to tame the fire that is red curry paste. The extra rice helped, but I'm afraid I may have met my match in red curry paste.
I have not given up on trying other curries from Real Vegetarian Thai. I really want to try some green curries (made with green curry paste, of course!), but to be cautious, I will try them first with very small amounts of the curry paste and work my way up to more generous amounts.
Why was I so confident that I would be able to handle the heat of this red curry? I believe it's because I enjoy the heat and flavors of spicy Mexican (or Tex-Mex or Southwestern, however you want to label it) and Indian food. It's not often that I make a dish from one of those cuisines that is overpoweringly spicy. The caveat is that I will adjust the number of fresh chile peppers to suit my own taste; if a recipe calls for two jalapeno peppers, many times I will use just one pepper. Perhaps if I use the same logic with Thai cooking I will end up with a dish that I can actually enjoy rather than survive!
Hurray for experimentation in the kitchen!