Moon Krapugthong is turning up the heat this month.
The chef and owner of Chabaa Thai Bistro on Main Street in Manayunk is reinstating its spicy food contest beginning today, Jan. 23, and lasting until Feb. 23. Customers can order one appetizer and one entree from a taste bud-searing menu to qualify for the finals, with the ten highest-ranking contestants advancing to the next round, where they will compete for a $1,000 prize.
This will be Chabaa’s fifth contest in Manayunk. Krapugthong skipped the contest in 2011, while she focused on running the now-defunct Mango Moon in the space that is now occupied by Gemelli on Main Street.
Umami is the Japanese term for overall savoriness in cuisine, and Krapugthong says it can only be achieved by harmonizing the sweet, salty, spicy and sour elements. The concept of umami is especially crucial with the explosive taste of Thai cuisine – and Krapugthong says she strives to maintain the savoriness in every meal, even while preparing food loaded with chili peppers for the upcoming spicy food contest.
“Thai food is all about balance,” Krapugthong said. “Each ingredient has a voice in the dish, and the chef has to string all these voices together and then bring them to a chorus.”
The appetizer portion of the spicy contest menu consists of tom yum soup, which is swimming with black basil, pepper, and a choice of chicken or shrimp. The alternative is num tok, a salad of london broil strips served of chili oil-cooked rice that has been pounded into a potent dust.
And that’s just a warm up compared to the entrees, Krapugthong says.
The crazy noodles entree gets its name because historically, someone would have to be either drunk or insane to consume such a fire of a meal.
“In the kitchen during the contest, my eyes water because the chili pepper oil is in the air,” Krapugthong says.
Customers who wish to enter the contest can pay a $20 fixed price to choose from a soup or salad followed by an entree that they must eat to qualify for the next round. The contestant requests how spicy they want their food. The spicier the dish, the better one’s chances of advancing to the top ten. Their performance will be ranked by the Chabaa staff according to “secret” criteria, Krapugthong says, and they can only drink water during the meal.
While the hottest item on the regular Chabaa menu is ranked by five stars, Krapugthung says customers have ordered food during the spicy contest between 30 and 45 stars, although she encourages people to know their limits.
“At any point you can leave the battle,” she says.