There's an obsession in American foodie circles -- born, I suspect, of the explosion in food TV -- with clean flavors. Spotless, distinct ingredients that announce themselves like they've arrived at a party with a date but could leave with anyone. For example: artisinal pickles, voguish now, contain flavors that simply can't blend with any others. They've cast a spell over the U.S. palette. Thai food is the antidote.
The bowl you see above, purchased in Chiang Mai, contains one of the greatest meals I've ever tasted. I asked what it's called, expecting to hear back some multisyllabic Thai word, rich with evocations of the northern region that birthed that magnificent brew and some unfamiliar allusion to the rain, the jungles and its plantlife. "Soup," was the answer I got.
And what soup. Floating in that mixture are leafy greens with their crunchy stalks, Thai spring onions and fatty beef, enlivened with beef tripe. (You think you don't like tripe? Give this a shot.) You get a bowl of rice, for adding to the brew as a sop. But that only highlights the beautiful truth. Subtract all those ingredients and you'll be left with the undiluted essence of this soup -- the broth.
The comedian would say that white people do broth like this: reduce the stock to add flavor, or throw in dairy to energize it. In French, Spanish or Italian cooking, the thicker the broth is, the better it tastes. But Thai people do broth like this: ... well, I don't know how they do it, and the day after my wife and I ate this soup, we even took a cooking class in the vague hope of replicating it. I gather the secret is to simmer it forever. But the basic point is that the broth is so thin it's got the consistency and mouth-feel of water. Yet it's dark as a fithy river. And the flavors within it are intense: protein that was once beef before an alchemical transformation, green peppercorns barely cracked and ground, the Thai ginger known as galangal, a blast of sour fish sauce -- another alchemical miracle -- and, importantly, heat.
This is a fiery soup. Chile paste -- the third alchemy the soup contains -- makes your mouth stand at attention, and sends your chopsticks reaching for another helping of rice. But it's not a numbing heat. The chiles are a furnace that warms the entranceway into the soup's hearth, where you'll find the pepper, the ginger, the fish sauce and the beef stock. You'll rub your hands together and get ready to converse with the greens and the tripe. Never once will you ask your host to turn down the temperature, as singed as you might feel.
It's worth noting that bowls of the stuff, along with its noodle-packed cousins, are available everywhere in and around Chiang Mai. More experienced palettes than ours will be able to tell the difference between them. But we were overjoyed to pause our meanderings through the Old City by ducking inside tiny tin-roofed soup shacks, sitting down on plastic chairs or sanded tree trunks, and tucking into bowls of this brown potion that cost maybe 60 cents.
Each time, though, the measure of how good the soup was came from its remnants: