Friday, 11 July 2008

Temperature Wise

I like hot food, as in spicy. I like every kind of chili pepper ever cultivated -- from the mild bell peppers through the spicier jalapenos, serranos, poblanos, cayennes, habaneros, and Scotch bonnets. I suspect there are many I have not yet sampled, and just thinking about them makes me feel wistful. I've even tried growing my own, and you would think that at the very least, I could produce a Scotch bonnet in Scotland, but no -- this is not to be. The fiery Scotch bonnet requires a fiery climate, and however warm it sometimes gets here, it never approaches fiery.

When I was a kid, we were the only Anglo family I knew who frequented Mexican restaurants where only Latinos ate. Not for us the fancy tourist places where the waitresses were gotten up in flouncy skirts and the margueritas were big enough to put your face in. Our favorite place was a hole in the wall where they made their salsa with whole jalapenos instead of taking the usual gringo's way out and removing the seeds first. My father called this sauce, not salsa, and when he ordered tamales, tacos and quesadillas, he mangled the pronunciation despite his best efforts, but man, could he put away the salsa. He was a lean, spare, tall man who fueled his body on beans, rice and chili peppers. He grew them wholesale and we sometimes helped in the fields. The only time we didn't like peppers was when we forgot we'd been handling them and accidentally touched our eyes. If you ever do this by mistake, you'll know what I mean.

I tell you all this so that you'll know I'm not some pansy eater who dabs a little tabasco sauce on her food and thinks it's enough. We go through bottles of the stuff pretty fast in this family, as I married another spice-eater and we've been cultivating our kids. Our pantry is stocked with pepper sauce from various nations; as I write this, our refrigerator has two kinds of kimchi in it and an Indian pickle that has you reaching for a fire extinguisher.

For years in Japan, every so-called Korean, Thai, Mexican, or Indian restaurant I ate at was a sore disappointment, the level of heat geared to that of the tender Japanese palate. I'm not the kind of person who complains in restaurants, but once, having eaten at a place that promised piri-piri kimchi chige -- fiery cabbage stew -- I felt like weeping after one bland mouthful. It might as well have been stuffed cabbage -- and not Hungarian, either. I was on the point of mentioning it to the waitress -- in the politest sort of way -- when I overheard the conversation at the next table. Two customers, both apparently Japanese, had ordered the same dish. The woman had one hand over her mouth and was reaching for her glass with the other. "Karai!" she squealed, fanning her face. "Too hot! I can't eat it!"

I decided not to say anything.

Then a new Indian restaurant opened up in Tokyo. It looked promising, and hope springs eternal, so I went there for lunch one day. The waiter took my order and asked if I wanted it spicy.

Now, I had been down this road before. At every single restaurant, I had asked the waiter or waitress to spice it up to the maximum -- that I could take it -- and still ended up with pablum. So I laid it on thick for this man. I told him to make it as spicy as he possibly could -- Indian style spicy was fine.

"Are you absolutely sure?" he asked, and I assured him I was. He shook his head and went off to get my order.

Let me tell you, he took me at my word. I knew that what I'd ordered was spicy when my spoon was half an inch from my mouth: I could feel the fumes, and they made my mouth -- and eyes -- water. A large window separated the kitchen from the diners so that you could watch the cooks rolling out chappatis into paper-thin circles and peeling steaming triangles of naan out of tandoori ovens. As I took my first bite, they were all there at the window, watching. I swear they'd placed bets on me.

I took a bite and almost choked. I'd never had anything so hot in all my life. Even the sauce in my father's beloved Templo Del Sol was less spicy, studded with jalapeno seeds though it was. I took another bite and that was hotter still. They say that water will not quench the fire of chilis; that it is better to eat yogurt or rice to take away the heat, but I had no choice. I got through five glasses of water during that lunch, and I was glad to have them. And I finished every single bit of that curry, using my naan to sop up the sauce. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the cooks nudge another, a wide smile on his face. His companion looked glum -- like he'd backed the losing horse.

No doubt about it: someone made some money on me. I should have asked for my cut.


Eryl Shields said...

I like spicy food too and am often disappointed in restaurants. My mother used to take a paper bag of bird's eye chillies with her when we ate out! I have to have 'hot' at least twice a week, though Stevie isn't keen. I make a salad of black rice, tiger prawns and Vietnamese dressing which is perfect for me but floors him. Lime juice puts out the fire though, so a Marguerita the size of your face would fit the bill nicely.

Kim Ayres said...

We're very tame in our house. My wife & I like a bit of heat, Rogan slightly less and Meg can't cope with it at all

Middle Ditch said...

I laughed out loud reading that last bit. Serves you right, I say.

Travis Erwin said...

I don't mind the hot going in so much, but the coming out is a whole 'nother story.

Christy said...

You totally should have gotten 10% off the top of the winning bet. Absolutely.

I'm reminded of my Korean friend who grills the servers at Asian restaurants. She picks the spiciest item on the menu, then demands both diced and whole peppers in her meal.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I used to know a Thai woman who carried both fish and chili sauce in her handbag. She would pull them out in restaurants and apply liberally -- to things like macaroni and cheese and roast chicken. I use a lot of lime juice with spicy dishes myself, but I promise you it would have put out the fire of my Indian curry like a thimble of water would put out a five alarm fire.

Kim -- My kids are still wimpy too, but we have hope. I figure in another couple of years, genetics will kick in and they'll come over to our side.

Middle Ditch -- Oh, I was served right all right! I learned to be very careful about ordering after that -- I always tried it one time first, regular strength. But I went back to that restaurant dozens of times and left with my mouth deliciously on fire time and again. I made sure not to ask for Indian strength in that paricular place, though. They were from Sri Lanka and could eat fire.

Travis -- You bet it is, and I wholly agree, though I don't let this stop me. If this weren't a family blog, I'm betting you and I could swap some right old stories.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- Our posts crossed!

Good for your Korean friend! I have been so tempted to do the same, believe me! The problem is, you can get away with this if you are Korean or Indian, say; plain old Haoles like me have a tougher time. People think we're showing off rather than exercising our cultural prerogative to enjoy tasty spicy food.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Ahah! I would have guessed your tongue met its match in an Indian restaurant. I've seen people from that part of the world eat chillies raw. Can you do that? I can't.

Tabitha said...

Ack! Peppers and eyes are a *really bad* combination! Horrid memory there. :)

I love the story of that spicy dish you ate at the Indian restaurant. If you like spicy, you'd probably like Nando's Peri-Peri sauce. You can get it in London, and it packs a fair amount of heat. Okay, for the average person, it packs a wallop of heat. But for us spicy eaters, it's a fair amount.

I grew up in the midwest, on the typical diet of bland meat and potatoes. No one in my family likes spicy food, but I just can't get enough of it. I have NO idea where this comes from, especially since I wasn't even introduced to spice until college. I even married an Indian, who will eat chilies raw. We're a good match in many ways, but especially in the food department. :)

Alice said...

I'm only a moderately spicy girl - not in your league at all.

I did, however, get a bit of hot pepper up my nose once (don't ask how) and it BURNED. I can still remember trying to stick my nose in a glass of water to help out. It didn't really.


You are my soul mate! I love spicy , hot food!!! MY saying is, 'when I bite my food I want it to bite me back'!

Charles Gramlich said...

You definitely should have got a cut. But you stood up and took the heat. That counts for much. Or sat down and took it, rather.

My brother and I once had a hot pepper eatin' contest. He won, although I bet I could take him now. I like a good hot spice but I'm sure not nearly as hot as you do.

A Paperback Writer said...

I hope you have good Indian restaurants nearby you now because the Scots certainly aren't known for spicy cooking! (And I recall how you longed for that burrito I had pictured a few weeks ago on my blog.)
Some of the hottest food I've ever had was in a Thai restaurant in SLC. The waiter asked us how hot we could stand food, and I said, "Really hot Mexican food." He nodded, turned his gaze to the order pad, and said, "So, medium, then."
And he was right: Medium was all I could handle there.
My mother, on the other hand, thinks one shake of black pepper is enough to kill. When we were kids, Mom's "taco sauce" consisted of ketchup with 3 drops of tabasco sauce. bland.

Oh, and it's not just the eyes with jalapeños. Once, I got a whole lot of of various chiles from a farmers' market and spent an hour chopping them for about 4 quarts of salsa. I didn't know to wear gloves, and my hands ached and burned so badly that I couldn't sleep that night. I even called poison control, but they said the only thing to do was take Tylenol and waiti it out.
I always put on gloves for even one pepper now. I learned my lesson.

Katie Alender said...

You're much braver than I am. I can tough it out through "medium", usually. I'm always delighted when my husband tastes something I've been eating and says, "That's pretty spicy!"

He likes to make certain dishes spicier than I prefer. When I protest, he says, "It's not spicy--it's spiceFUL."

Carolie said...

I knew we were somehow sisters of the soul, and stories like this just convince me further of it! I like things HOTHOTHOT, and Fearless Husband likes 'em even hotter. Great tale!

Anne Spollen said...

I grew up with a mom who learned how to cook from her mom in County Mayo, Ireland. She thinks my use of oregano in tomato sauce is a direct and unfortuante result of my marriage to an Italian, and she has to taste my sauce on a teaspoon just in case I've added too much.
My husband, on the other hand, can eat fire...

laura said...

As a waitress, I hate it when someone asks me how 'hot' something is. How do I know what 'hot is to them!!?? And I'll never forget when I was 18 and the night before a job interview, I helped my mother cut up and can a batch of hot peppers! Dear God, the next morning I had to put my contacts in with my knuckles. Why? Because just try touching your eyes after handling peppers with your bare hands. And during the canning process, my dad and I started choking and coughing as the air filled with what seemed like toxic acid! From now on I'll buy the damned things already prepared.

Mary Witzl said...

GB -- Yes, I can eat chili peppers raw, and frequently have. I did this once in Mexico and spent a pretty uncomfortable night, but it was worth it -- impressing a whole roomful of people. I was young and silly.

Tabitha -- Getting chili pepper juice in your eyes is not a joke, is it? I've run screaming from the kitchen a time or too myself, and sometimes I have to open all the windows as the very air is thick with chili fire.

We've got at least three bottles of Nando sauce going -- there are several varieties of it and I can't remember which ones we have, only that we are fast running out. My husband tends to put it on tuna casserole when I make that. I buy small bags of red and green chili peppers and dry half of them; the rest I use for Thai salads, dal, curries, pad thai, etc. I also have a jar of Szechuan peppers and they are really hot.

It always fascinates me that some people who grow up eating mild food crave hot stuff, whereas some will never develop a taste for it. I have never met anyone who grew up eating spicy stuff who doesn't like it, though. Have you?

Alice -- Now I am going to be wondering how in the world you got a bit of chili up your nose -- hey wait -- okay, I get it! (I'll have to watch that in the future, and thanks for the tip.)

Ubermouth -- Thank you for visiting my blog, and what a great name you've got -- perfect for this post. You really need an ubermouth to be able to relish fire.

Charles -- After mouthing off about how hot I could take it, there was no way I was going to leave that curry on my plate. Plus, I was paying for it and my cheapskate ethics would not have allowed me to leave it.

Ooh, I'd like to try a contest like that, especially if it involved a certain amount of beer, and possibly tortilla chips.

APW -- The Indian restaurant in this town is good and spicy, though unfortunately also rather pricey. I tend to make our Indian food, and can thus control the level of spice.

I think Thai and Sri Lankan Indian food are about the hottest kinds of cuisine in the world. I've had Thai food that was as hot as the stuff in that Tokyo restaurant. I managed to finish it, but talk about a pyrrhic victory!

We used to help my father deseed peppers, and yes, if you do that without gloves, you suffer terribly -- especially when you run hot water over your hands! I spent an awful night once after making job lots of salsa for a party; the gloves I was wearing had holes in the fingers.

Katie -- I think you can definitely train your palate to appreciate spicy food. I'm betting your husband is trying to convert you. My mother could never bear the same degree of spiciness my father so rejoiced in, though he did his level best to turn her. Most of the time my husband and I can take the same amount of fire, but sometimes he is tougher than I -- and vice versa.

Carolie -- Yay, another thing we have in common! You must have had a blast in Taiwan -- right? I sure did! If you ever visit us here, I will get in a good stock of chili peppers and make us something fiery.

Anne -- Thank you for visiting my blog!

I had an Irish pal who could eat chili peppers with the pros. Your mother would have fainted, sampling her pasta sauce; she always did it Arrabiata and oregano was the least of what she put into it. But she had lived abroad for years...

Laura -- Just the thought of putting in contact lenses with chili peppers fingers is enough to make my eyes tear up. I made a large amount of chili relish once and had to have all the windows open. And I always open the windows when I'm making salsa or the kids complain.

Susan Sandmore said...

Oh my! I can only stand mildly hot and spicy. But you and my husband would get along very well!

Been catching up on your entries that I missed while I moved. Your blog is so varied, and it never fails to make me smile.

A Paperback Writer said...

One of the most amazingly stupid things I've ever seen a kid do in school involved a chile.
A boy brought dried jalapeños to school and dared me to eat one morsel plain. I did, to amuse the class, and I had watery eyes for awhile, but it was about what I'd expected.
The boy with the chile ground some up into a powder and asked (near the end of class, when most kids were finished working) if he could snort it into a nostril. I warned him it was a dumb idea and that he would be in pain. I reminded him of how my eyes watered eating the stuff, and told him that it would be far worse if he got it up his nose. But, I allowed him to make his own decision.
Predictably, he snorted the powder and was soon rolling on the floor in pain, while I said, "I did warn you...."
Now, here's the amazing part: several other boys, watching this kid squirm, immediately asked me if I would allow them to do the same thing.
Even though I know 13-year-olds are capable of incredible stupidity, this one surprised me.
I refused to allow them to repeat his stunt, and they had to go to their next classes with normal nostrils and feeling hugely disappointed at my cruelty.
(The boy who did snort the stuff recovered by the next day and did not bring any more chiles in his pockets to class. Lesson learned there.)

Tabitha said...

APW - LOL!!! That's just hilarious! As a mother of two boys, I'm not looking forward to hearing a request like that. :)

Mary - I've never heard of someone growing up on spicy food not liking it, either. I can't imagine wanting to give that up. It's just sooo good. And I should have known you'd already discovered Nando's sauce. My husband eats it on everything, but the problem is that it's hard for us to get...seeing as we live in Chicago, and I've only seen it for sale in London. If you know of a way for us to get it regularly, I'm all ears! :)

Mary Witzl said...

Susan -- How was your move, and was I right in comparing it to childbirth? You DO forget the agony after you've finished doing it -- or at least after a suitable recovery period. But while it is going on, it is pretty hellish.

When I started this blog a friend I mentioned it to said, "But what will you find to write about?" I couldn't get over that. My problem is that there isn't much I don't want to write about. I think I ought to get serious and start concentrating more on one particular thing.

APW -- Oh, this had me laughing!

Believe it or not, when I was in third grade there was a boy who could always be called on to ingest an entire carton of milk THROUGH HIS NOSE. I kid you not; this was a party piece of his and as you can imagine, he always got a huge audience at lunch time -- and could be sure of a group of girls watching in shocked horror and making suitably disgusted noises. I will confess that I found it fascinating. He claimed he could get most of a banana up his nose too, but I seriously doubt it. Now I'm wondering how he would have managed with a chili pepper. I'm guessing it would have been an even better show.

Tabitha -- If I were you, I would make my own piri-piri sauce! I've done this, and as long as you've got good venilation it's simple and quick. Check out this great website:

It tells you everything you need to know about chili sauce -- including where to order it and how to make it and all sorts of weird but wonderful arcane information such as the molecular weight of Capsaicin and the fact that eating fatty things will help get rid of the burning sensation it causes.

The fact that no one who eats spicy stuff wants to stop doing it reinforces my belief that it's the way to go. All those endorphins can't be wrong, and anyway, it tastes so good!

Ello said...

If you ever want to eat the best kimchee chigae in the world, then you have to come to DC and I will cook it for you. Mine can't be beat. I use pork ribs and potatoes and make it like a really spicy stew. As I got older, I have been less able to handle spices so I have become wimpier, but I am all over spicy flavor. We also have a Korean tofu stew place which makes the korean tofu stew so spicy you burn your nostrils just sitting in its vicinity. It comes in 5 degrees of spicy from mild to really spicy. I get regular and it is almost too spicy for me. One think I notice is when you eat spicy food when it is piping hot, it is even spicier than if you wait a few minutes and let it cool. Interesting how that works out! I am so in awe of you liking kim chee! So many I know can't stand the stuff!

Jacqui said...

Childhood memory: every Passover my dad's cousin would make horseradish fresh from the root and all the grown men would take turns tasting it and, faces red and tears spewing from their eyes, declare it not spicy enough.

A Paperback Writer said...

Tabitha and Mary,
glad I could amuse you.
Mary, I most certainly believe you about the boy and the milk. I've never seen that one, but I've seen boys snort cooked spaghetti through a nostril then suck it out through their mouths so they can "floss" with it. At least it's got to hurt less than jalapeños. Kids snort ground-up smarties candies, too.
jacqui-- horseradish. oh my.

I believe that good Mexican food should always be served with a box of tissues -- but that's my limit. I like it hot, but not quite as hot as some of you must. I do like to be able to eat without having tears streaming into my food.
This has been a fun post.

Kappa no He said...

I am that pansy eater.


Although I am in training.

Merry Monteleone said...


You know, I don't consider myself a spicy eater, but I hate bland and you'd be surprised how many people think well seasoned is too spicy.

You should have walked up to the kitchen window and demanded your cut, though! :-)

Carole said...

I like spicy, but it isn't my favorite. A former sister-in-law is Korean and she makes kimshi and I can't eat it. Too spicy for me. But my granddaughter who is 19 months old and hasn't mastered eating yet (she is fed by a tube) loves salsa, the hotter the better. It is the only thing she will keep in her mouth and swallow. And if it burns her mouth and her eyes water, she likes it even better.

Tabitha said...

Oooo, thanks Mary! That website is gonna come in REALLY useful! :)

Danette Haworth said...

Ha, Mary! I accidentally doubled the curry in a dish I was making. My husband and I ate it, tears streaming down our cheeks. "Oh, man!" we said. "It's never turned out this good before."

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- Your kimchee chige sounds GREAT, as does that place with the tofu stew. My eldest and I were on a Japanese T.V. program called Mogu Mogu Kombo where she and a small group of kids sampled an incredibly spicy Korean stew. The other parents -- a man from Ghana, a Vietnamese woman and a Japanese woman -- were all gaga for that stew and our kids were practically throwing up on camera. Sigh.

On my last trip to Korea (ages ago -- before Seoul hosted the Olympics), I finally got as much kimchee as I wanted. In Korea, people eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In Scotland, I've taken to making my own. I've got lots of rock salt, a good-sized stone, plenty of pepper and tons of garlic -- it's the hakusai and daikon that can be tough to find.

Jacqui -- Haha! Guys tend to equate the ability to stand spiciness with manliness. It is possible that at least one man was thinking that the level of spiciness was just fine, but didn't dare say so to the others.

APW -- My God: the things that boys do! And to think that banana story was probably true!

Whenever I eat spicy food, I always keep tissues handy. I may be able to take the heat, but there is no denying the physiological response of a runny nose.

I've enjoyed reading all of these responses -- I just wish I'd eaten dinner first. Vietnamese salad, burritos, kimchee, horseradish, and curry. Sigh...

Kappa -- That was never you sitting near me in Sendai, was it? -- fanning your mouth and crying "Karaaiii"? I'm betting your husband likes spicy food -- right?

Merry -- I really would not be surprised! One day, I will have to write a post about my father-in-law, who could smell curry from a mile away -- and the man who came to stay at our guest house and wanted 'plain' fish -- meaning no salt, pepper or even parsley garnish. I can't get over how picky some people can be, or how plain they like their food.

Carole -- Kimchee is best eaten when it is bitterly cold outside, with a bowl of hot rice and plenty of beer. I can't help but think that people who don't like it just haven't discovered the right way to eat it.

Nebraska likes salsa? At just 19 months? That is absolutely amazing!

Tabitha -- I've used that site too, and I can vouch for those recipes. Just make sure you open the windows and get those gloves on first!

Danette -- Yay, and good for you! I tend to double the amount of spice and garlic in all recipes automatically, and I'm sure it makes all the difference in the world in terms of taste (and keeps everyone standing well back from us, too).

The Anti-Wife said...

I'm a spice woos. I like food with flavor, but not so hot it makes my eyes water or tongue burn. I think you're crazy.

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- We are, we are! We're crazy about spice!

problemchildbride said...

Well my palate's a pansy compared to that. I like a good hot Indian curry , by which I mean a medium curry in a British Indian Restaurant. US curry houses don't put nearly the heat into their dishes which I've always thought was strange because the Mexican-food-attuned American palate has always seemed to me more used to dealing with hot and spicy than the British.

My husband eats peppers whole, as they come. I blanch when I see it.

Mary Witzl said...

Sam, I've noticed that about Indian restaurants in America! Now you've got me wondering why they don't spice it up a bit more. Do they think we can't take it? Maybe the first ones that opened up were in places like the Midwest. My stepmother, from Illinois, would pass out if she got the merest whiff of jalapeno. And yet I do know Midwesterners who have learned to like it really hot, so now you've got me wondering...

I once knew a wonderfully spicy Indian place in New York, on Lexington Avenue, and another not far from Canal Street. But then you can find ANYthing in New York...

Chocolatesa said...

Loll!! Thanks for the laugh!! Personally I can't take even mild spice, I have to have a glass of milk with mild cheese salsa.