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Death by Capsaicin

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Crispy fried catfish at Jitlada, Los Angeles

Crispy fried catfish at Jitlada, Los Angeles

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took a short weekend trip to LA and this trip was entirely for the sake of food – Mexican in particular. But even Mexican food lovers like us, need a break or two.  Jitlada was the one we chose – the great  Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer prize winning food critic, had recommended a few dishes among the “99 Things to Eat in LA before you die” and not just because they serve the hottest curries in this part of the world.

To be honest, our culinary adventures in Thai cuisines are more or less limited to a few Thai restaurants in Bay Area and cooking out of  Kasma Loha-unchit‘s “It Rains Fishes” . The one supposedly authentic meal I had in Bangkok was terrible. So with great gutso, we read about the fresh ingredients, flavorful and authetic recipes… a promise of a delightful thai meal without stepping out of the timezone of San Francisco.

It was a Thursday night at Jitlada – relatively quiet. There was nothing good or bad about the ambiance, a neighborhood restaurant like many others with an assortment of Asian decor on the walls. It looked family run – the staff seemed to know each other well – background of friendly chatter mingled with the fresh aroma of basil and coconut milk. Only thing that made it different from one of the several Bay Area restaurants was the sight of a sunburnt surfer dude with a glorious doll-like creature on his arms. An angel maybe? Then I noticed Marge staring down at us – Matt Groening had dined there….

We ordered the crispy catfish as a starter – practically every description of Jitlada had raved about it. Nothing like fried fish salad to start off a meal – particularly if, like me, you are from Calcutta where fresh fried fish is a favorite snack anytime of the day. For entrees, we decided on curried frog legs and jungle curried lamb with sticky rice on the side. We were told that the food was cooked upon order and hence our patience was appreciated. What was a half hour of wait after we had driven down 400 miles for the food.

Southern Thai style frog leg curry

Southern Thai style frog leg curry

The first thing to arrive on the table was the curried frog legs. Served with finely julienned green peppers, thai green chillies, basil and thai eggplant. Perfectly done vegetables. The eggplant was crunchy – something I hadn’t eaten before. In cooking thai eggplant based curries at home, I had been cooking them to softness. Crunchy was surely better. The sticky rice was delicious but after the first spoonful of the curry, my mouth was on fire and I could no longer taste anything. Keep in mind that I eat hot food all the time, but this was at a complete different Scoville level – it was tear inducing, mouth scorching, tongue scouring heat. After the first bite, all I tasted in that dish was capsaicin.

My home cooked thai stir fry

My home cooked thai stir fry

You could argue that if I couldn’t taste anything, then maybe it was my fault. And maybe it was. My only counter argument to that is of the aromatic senses – my home Thai cooking with shrimp paste, fresh galangal, keffir lime leaves, thai chillies, lemongrass, coriander, and mace is consistently more aromatic than that southern curry.

A chemist friend of mine recommends that capsaicin can be washed away by alcohol – something to do with insolubility in water and solubility in alcohol. We had ordered a couple of bottles of Singha right after the first spoonful of that frog leg curry but it arrived nearly 20 minutes afterwards.Maybe I shouldn’t let that worry me too much – beer is nearly 95% water. What we needed was nearly 95% alcohol or a dollop of butter.

Jungle curried lamb was the next dish to be served – the heat level in this was not as high on the Scoville scale as the frog legs had been. Unfortunately, the stewed lamb was too fatty for my taste  and gristly too. Nothing really to write home about –  a typical neighborhood restaurant dish.

Matt Groening was here

Matt Groening was here

After about half an hour, we inquired about our appetizer. Oops, they had forgotten about it entirely. Well, such things happen even on a quiet Thursday night. And there is nothing really terrible about having appetizer after entrees – I once started the meal with the dessert. However, we were surprised when the fried fish arrived cold at the table. Now, I know what that fried fish should have tasted like. There is a popular dish in Calcutta served fried like that called “Kabiraji cutlet” – the minced meat cutlets are fried on the outside into a crispy light lace like texture. What we had on the plate was a fried fish that was standing at the counter for 30 minutes getting cold. The crispy lace had turned into a soggy and chewy web. So much for “Good food happens to those who have patience”….

Written by Som

May 4, 2010 at 8:02 am

One Response

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  1. […] is poetic about fiery sauces. My enthusiasm for heat is somewhat tempered, particularly after the Jitlada incident. In the case of huarache, as well as the gordita, the salsas do add the much needed […]

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