Of the many excellent dishes of Thai cuisine's thousands of degustatory concoctions, one of my favorites is phad kra phao or fried basil leaves and hot chili peppers.
Typically served on rice with pork or chicken (but sometimes with shrimp or other seafood), you can also order it with a fried egg on the side, as the Thais often do.
There's also a version of the dish served with fried wide rice noodles, instead of the usual white rice, called phad khee mao (drunkard's noodles) which I've happily ordered instead.
When I began doing my annual revisits to Thailand in 2005 and 2006 one of my favorite pastimes was ordering this tasty and often spicy dish.
By the time of my last visit in 2007, my lust for phad kra phao had evolved into something of a quest to find the best of its kind in Thailand.
Without any real desire to find a definitive winner, however, I noticed after a time that I was ordering the dish at least once, sometimes twice, per day.
I ordered it from typical sit-down restaurants, from the smallest of street stalls, from air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls, from five-star hotel coffee shops, from fancy mountain resorts, from the humblest of village food shacks, from 20-30 baht menus (60 cents to 90 cents) to 300-400 baht menus ($9 to $12).
My friend Pik would often make it, and anytime I visited other friends at home there was a good chance phad kra phao would be on their own extensive, family-style meals as well.
Did I ever find the best one? I'm fairly certain I never had a bad one, with one remarkable exception.
In 1997 I was working the Phrae gig with the Banjoman Band. The venue was a typical restaurant/pub job (owned by the same owner of today's Tiger Kingdom in Chiangmai), and band members were entitled to one free rice dish per night.
The chef was aware that phad kra phao was one of my favorites, and he would ask me: "Dave kin phet dai mai?" ("Can you eat spicy?")
When I assured him that I could eat it spicy "baep Thai" (Thai style) it became something of a game for him to find my limit of phrik khee noo (hot chili peppers). Gradually his version of the dish became ever more spicy. After the meal he would smirk and ask me how it was: "Phet mai? Dave yang kin phet dai, reu?" ("Was it spicy? You can still eat spicy?") Always I would assure him: "Kin dai nae nawn! Arroi maak maak luhy" ("Of course I can eat spicy! It's very delicious")
One night, possibly in frustration at my unwillingness to blink, he went all out and just loaded up the dish with as much crushed chili pepper as he could manage. I forget now if I ordered it with pork, or chicken, or shrimp, or what, because it hardly matters: his creation was so spicy that it was virtually inedible. I went through the motions, but I conspicuously didn't clean my plate that evening.
As always, he was near the door as I was on my way home for the night, and he didn't waste time cornering me with: "Khuen-nee arroi mai? Dave yang kin phet dai, chai mai?" ("Was it good tonight? You can still eat spicy, right?") What a smartass!
Still, I refused to bend: "Arroi maak, kheun-nee man phet nit-noi tae arroi muean deum" ("Very tasty, tonight it was a little spicy but delicious all the same")
At this my culinary torturer roared with laughter as I walked out of the joint. I never ordered the dish from him again.
So did I ever find a "best" one? Who knows, but one occasion sticks out for me.
I recall that I ordered a standout version of the dish from a hole in the wall, outdoor-seated, food shack outside the so-called Fish Cave on the winding mountain road from Soppong to Mae Hong Son town.
If I remember correctly, the mae khrua (owner/chef) recommended the shrimp version, so I said okay. It absolutely blew me away with its flavor, subtle spicing, and overall naa-kin (extraordinarily delicious) quality.
How do I remember this occasion after having tried phad kra phao hundreds of times over 25 years?
Because on that day I said to myself:
"I think I might have found the best phad kra phao in Thailand!"