Friday, August 23, 2013

Assault by pepper: My first day on the Chinese-Burmese border

Rarely do I manage to escape a cluster of street stalls without fistfuls of mystery to-go bags, but Ruili’s local farmers’ market so overwhelmed me that I managed it.

People fanned spits of rotating ducks and chickens, the air heavy with dry spiced smoke. The woman at the first duck stall waved her cleaver menacingly as she told us how she’d cut and price the duck, but she good-naturedly offered me one of a bucket of tiny chili-soaked crabs as a taste when I expressed interest. The crab was a thumb-sized bomb of pure red spice, its meager flesh holding the oil of so many peppers that my nose, shocked, immediately started running so aggressively I had to use up my entire day’s supply of toilet paper.
Women sat surrounded by bowls of green salad-looking dishes, and after much deliberation, I chose two to sample as I wandered. Despite the vendor’s assurances that these were dishes and not spices, even though they came in plastic bags with no chopsticks, the first was a dense mass of cilantro and pepper seeds that would have been fiery even as a teaspoon in a pot of something much bigger, and the second was not much milder. Wishing I could magic the bags home to my mom, who would quickly figure out how to blend them into something, we kept walking. A beggar asked for my dishes/spices, and I gladly acquiesced, hoping he knew what he was getting into, and it started raining.

The covered section of the market was a muddy, sloshing gymnasium-sized gathering of butchers, vegetable vendors, breakfast stalls, and oddities (the most notable of which was a large, uneven-looking rock that its vendor explained was actually an anthill. One apparently hacks off a piece of anthill, boils it, and eats it. Next door to the anthills were mushrooms so large they appeared to have morphed into wooden tree trunks.

Indoor market
Tree trunk mushrooms
Unfortunately lacking in places or pots in which to boil an oversized anthill for lunch, we left the market (via boards laid across the flooding ground) and found a place that advertised Thai-style chicken on its sign, but actually drew us in with bowlfuls of fresh fruit on the counter, plus an extensive fruit juice menu. Buoyed by the sudden realization of my proximity to Burma - less than 6km away - I ordered tea leaf salad. It came out thick and a pastelike dark green, its leaves weighed down as though painted onto the plate. The dish was dotted with bright red circles of pepper, though the owner claimed they were merely decorative and the spice came from the green. Based on the care which I had to take to keep my lips from catching fire and falling to the ground, the green paste was likely distilled from ghost peppers. The only thing that saved me was the tall glass of passion fruit juice, which I saved from the inevitable Chinese Sugar Spoon of Overkill by claiming I wanted it ‘sour’.

Tea leaf salad in front, vegetarian rice embarrassment in back, smoothies standing guard.
I would not be granted a respite from spiciness for dinner.
Dai Dai Xiao Diao, a lushly decorated Dai minority restaurant next to a blind massage parlor (where I received my first gua sha of the trip), advertised Lao-style roast fish and though I knew what that would entail - dry red spice rubbed on the outside, gut cavity stuffed with wet green spice - I went for it.

As though the dry and wet spice weren’t enough, the fish came (along with lettuce leaves, fried garlic and mung beans, a mystery fish-mint cousin, and cilantro) with a mildly foamy orange sauce for dipping, a mere drop of which sent my nose into evacuation mode yet again.

Spying on my distress from a corner, our waiter very kindly dropped off a different dipping sauce which he claimed was not spicy. Though totally untrue objectively, when compared with the habanero lava lake, it indeed gave mostly the impression of lemongrass and garlic.

(I should reiterate here that I am the person who regularly gets into near-altercations with Thai and Chinese restaurants in the U.S. who are reluctant to make my food spicy enough.)

However, with the lemongrass dipping sauce, the fish made an extremely satisfying dinner. Dragon-backed and with almost no bones to speak of except for a robust rib cage, its flesh was easy to dig out, place in the lettuce leaf, and sprinkle with trimmings. The flesh alone was white and mild, but smeared in dry spice, soaked in wet spice, wrapped in leaves, and sprinkled with beans and garlic, it came alive in the kind of way that only really overwhelmingly flavorful meals can.

When what should by all rights be way too many axe-wielding ingredients somehow settles down, smooths out, and hits your throat as a unified whole, you know the chef really knows his stuff.

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