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.
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.