Thursday, November 18, 2010

Some like it Spicy

There is this strange perception that goes around that white folk don't like spicy food, or can't handle it. As someone who has spent most of my adult life sustained almost entirely on spicy foods and bothered to order a gallon of Frank's Hot Sauce from the States, because I miss good hot sauce, this perception can be rather annoying. I first encountered it when travelling in Thailand back in 02'. I'd order Thai food and get this tasteless crappy version that was clearly prepared for that portion of the white population that prefers mayonnaise to Tabasco. Sure you could add spiced oil and red pepper flakes, but it usually wasn't as good as when the chilies are cooked into the dish. We encountered similar silliness in Nepal, India and Mexico as well, and I spend an awful lot of time convincing the people at the restaurants that, yes I really do want my food prepared hot and spicy. Half the time it still comes out and isn't that hot.

This kind of treatment normally gets me into a bit of a huff, and I find myself wanting to challenge the poor waiter to a contest of who can eat the spiciest food. "I'll bury you pal!" is the accompanying thought. seriously, I've happily consumed meals that when they touch your skin it turns a bit red from irritation...I can put down some seriously hot stuff. Since I've been in Nepal I've found that many Nepali people don't think westerners like spicy food, or that we can't handle too many hot peppers. When I first moved here one of the first foods I went ahead and tried to make was Mexican style chili, and my hosts thought it was intriguing that not only a man was cooking, but that I had bought chilies. The dish calls for not only chopped up chillies but I also added a fair amount of chili powder, which made my host question why I was making it so hot. Because, some westerners do indeed like it hot, in fact hotter than my host would have liked it.

Now this is not to say that westerners did not get a reputation as wimps when it comes to spicy foods for no reason. I find the common culprits to be those over the age of 45 and from northern Europe. When selling my Enlightened Salsa at the market, which has at least a little hot, I find North Americans (read people from the US and Canada) are my number one market, followed by Ausies, Nepalis, and younger British. I occasionally get German, French or other European buyers but much more rarely. Some of this might have less to do with the level of hotness as much as cultural lack of experience with things like salsa. That said many of the northern Europeans who try the hot roasted pepper salsa that I make tend to think it is extremely hot, when back in the US it would pass as on the lower end of hot or the upper end of medium.

Still by the sheer number of people that buy salsa and from my dining experiences out with people in Kathmandu, the notion that westerners don't eat spicy food, or that we have a very low tolerance for it is quite overblown. Some of us can put down hot peppers with the best of them, and the neutering of some dishes in an attempt to placate an expected western pallet that can't handle spicy food usually just ends with a kind of plain meal that is lacking for flavor, and usually not appreciated even by the people who indeed don't like spicy food.  The point is that food should be prepared in the way that it tastes best, there are plenty of options out there for those with more sensitive tastes, and plenty of poorly imitated western food to choose from. It's a shame when many travelers also have to suffer through a bad imitation of the local food as well.

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