One of the best things about Southeast Asia, so far, is the soup. A not so special bowl of broth and noodles arrives at your table along with a plate of green beans, cabbage, mint, fresh chilies and a couple lime wedges. After shredding the veggies and mint, you drop them in the hot broth to cook. As they cook, you can attend to flavoring the broth.
At the center of the table sit a series of condiments: dried ground chili paste, Squid Brand Fish Sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, and a Tupperware bowl of fermented fish paste which smells exactly like it sounds. The soup by itself is rather bland. You flavor it by adding moderate amounts of the various sauces and pastes, mixing them in and tasting as you go. The first thing that typically goes in when I'm preparing my soup is the dried chili paste. Usually I eyeball the amount taking what at the time looks like a small dab with my soup spoon, about half a tablespoon. It doesn't look like much. The problem is that its usually really hot outside, usually, and the soup broth is just a Fahrenheit degree or so away from boiling, so your pores open up around your lips and your face and for men, under their mustaches, and the lime stimulates your salivary glands.
By the time you've taken two sups or so the heat starts to get to you. The steam rises from teh broth further opening your pores, making your eyes water a little. Its hard to tell if its the spice of the chili or the heat of the broth, but your tongue and lips erupt in excruciating pain. By the third or fourth sup or so, your eyes begin to water, eventually to the point that your vision is slightly blurred. The synergy of the open pore sweating of your entire face and the chili oil getting deep into the heat expanding pores of your lips and the vermillion border under your mustache makes each bite a very small triumph of will. But its damn tasty...
...especially with the fermented fish paste.