Here's where I let my thoughts go this way and that on food-related topics.

Eating on the Edge

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This past winter I've been getting snug sustenance from soul-warming foods like chicken soup and home-made banana bread. But the season has been a little too long, a little too wet, and even the cozy pleasure of my favorite comfort foods has begun to wear thin. I'm getting bored with food that cuddles and coddles. What I want is food that excites and ignites. This calls for Thrill Food.

Thrill food is comfort food's kick-ass counterpart. If comfort food is like a security blanket, thrill food is like a magic carpet. Recently I've been craving the untried tastes of places I've never been. My bedside table has begun to pile up with cookbooks that offer the flavors of North Africa and the Middle East. I've been tracking down unpronounceable seasonings in off-the-beaten-path markets. (FYI: don't bother looking for zaatar or twabil at your local Safeway.) Last Thursday it wasn't the aroma of fresh-baked banana bread that filled my kitchen but the unfamiliar sweet spiciness of a Moroccan Tagine bi Temar. I'm not sure what's next on my culinary itinerary, but it won't be Cleveland.

>Cravings for thrill food are not just symptoms of a restless palate, but a restless psyche. Sometimes I'm gripped with a fidgety malaise that makes me want to change my life, my career, or my hair color. Or maybe I just need a change of scene and cuisine. This is when I head out for an neighborhood where English is a second language and a restaurant where waiters do not volunteer their first names to diners. The Southeast Asian restaurants in downtown Oakland are thrill-food gold mines for me. (On the other hand, they're probably havens of comfort food for homesick Cambodians and Vietnamese.)

These Asian restaurant meals often contain a feature with thrill potential of nuclear proportions: whole hot chile peppers. Unlike my husband, I don't get a charge out of chile endurance tests. (And my palate has a pathetically low heat threshold.) Nevertheless, on rare occasions I take the incendiary challenge just to prove that my grit and my gut are still battle-ready. The pepper-driven firestorm that rages through my innards is well worth the momentary swagger it puts in my self-image.

I love the kind of thrill foods that cut me loose from my ordinarily cautious self. Foods that make me feel impetuous and unrepentant. Whenever I travel to another country, I'm always on the prowl for native dishes that would be considered barbaric in the United States. In France I plundered blood sausages and donkey sausages. In Northern Italy I scarfed down rooster combs. In Peru I ate guinea pig...well, almost. (I backed down at the sight of the rodent's roasted little head sporting a lettuce-leaf hat.) Foods like these give me the heady, if fleeting, illusion of living dangerously. When I return home, I relish recounting my escapades; it's not often I can brag about unseemly behavior.

Aside from zinging me with flavors that range from rapturous to weird, thrill food provides me with a range of vicarious thrills. I can feel adventurous without leaving home, or dare-devilish without risking multiple fractures, or even disreputable without breaking the law. And whenever I get burned out on culinary thrills, I can always come back to chicken soup and home-made banana bread.