Saapiicy Thai Style?

The Thai attitude towards hungry westerners and western food never ceases to make me smile. The perpetual belief that there absolutely cannot be a westerner who can eat spicy food – let alone enjoy it – is a source of wonderment.

I would imagine a lot of that belief is based on the average Thais experience of western food – possibly bland, in comparison to chicken with basil and chilli, sure – but what do they base this on? McDonalds? They don’t seem to understand that, these days, the majority of westerners grow up eating food from all over the world – Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Thai are just a few of them.

When I think of the hottest, spiciest dishes I have enjoyed, Thai food doesn’t even come close. An Indian Phaal curry or Japanese wagarashi and wasabi. A Schezuan hotpot from China. These are things that make Thai food look like ice cream!

But what I like best is the face of the person serving you when you ask for a hot dish. You can actually see the cogs turning in their head as they say “very spicy” as if it’s a warning. Or my favourite one – the look and then the question “Thai style???“.

7 Comments so far

  1. กินเผ็ดได้ (unregistered) on December 16th, 2004 @ 2:06 am

    From a cultural perspective with a heavy dose of generalities…
    The ability of Thais to eat spicy foods evolves primarily from a process of gastronomic nurturing. Thai chiles (prik khi nu) are introduced into meals in increasing incremental quantities from adolescence and throughout adulthood. Thais believe the constant and gradual exposure of the tongue to the heat component in chiles (i.e. capsaicin) will not only build the necessary tolerance to fiery foods, but will also help develop the required iron constitution. It should quickly be noted that tastebud endurance goes hand-in-hand with gastrointestinal fortitude. After all, having a high threshold of pain shouldn’t mean one ends up camping out at the loo every time a 20-chile count Isaan-style som tdam is ingested.

    Using the rationale set forth, it can be assumed that the pervasive skepticism Thais have for falangs ordering spicy foods is at least due, in part, to the belief that the “palate conditioning” is absent in traditional Western (i.e. Falang) gastronomic culture (this is more or less a restatement of your own presupposition). Coincidently, all of the dishes/ingredients you’ve named are of Asian/South Asian in origin. Contrary to your opinion, I don’t believe the mere exposure of the falang palate to a plethora of world cuisines necessarily creates a taste and tolerance for spicy foods.

  2. Baba (unregistered) on December 16th, 2004 @ 8:20 am

    I don’t consider myself an exception as a ‘farang’, and I was eating my mum’s super hot indian curries at the age of 7, not to mention the spiciest samosas on the planet. In addition, the Portuguese love chilli in the form of piri piri and we eat that from a young age too. So, I guess some of us from the west do experience chilli from a young age.

  3. him (unregistered) on December 16th, 2004 @ 9:07 am

    So what you are saying is that because Thais are brought up with spicy, chile-based food, they have a taste and tolerance of said foods.

    But then you say that you don’t believe that a westerner who is brought up eating spicy food will have that tolerance.

    Why is that? Do Asians have some bizarre naturally occuring taste buds that westerners do not have?

    I think possibly you meant that you believe that westerners just dont grow up eating enough in comparison to Thais because, yes, there are very few of us that would eat these things 5 times a day every day. But your rationale is more than a little flawed, claiming that a westerners will only have “mere exposure” is a very broad generalisation, a generalisation which is inherent in the majority of Thais and so prompted me to actually write the post. In essence you have entirely backed up my views of why Thais are ignorant of the western taste for food.

    Just because I used Asian food as an example, there are many “wetsern” dishes that still blow asian food out of the water, from Portuguese chicken to Mexican Chilli.

    Although I will just add that, in some degree of fairness, there are very few english or american dishes that I would consider spicy.

  4. กินเผ็ดได้ (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 12:09 am

    My response was intended to only address the widely held Thai belief that Falangs aren’t able to hold their own when it comes to spicy food. The post was NOT meant as a validation of their belief, but rather a cultural explanation of their perception. The validation itself, has sufficiently been provided in your postings – that is, Thais are insular and ignorant – fortunately, these traits can easily be overlooked and/or remedied. Let me also be clear that I certainly wasn’t trying to call into doubt yours, Baba’s or any Falang’s keen developed taste for heat. I’ve known falangs who can pop habaneros without flinching, as well as Thais who have an aversion to the mere sight of dried chili pods wedged in their dishes. Thus, knowing what I know, it would be improper of me to make stereotypical judgments of anyone’s palate.

    Here’s my point…
    If one forms the perception of the falang palate based on what is considered to be the epitome of European culinary artistry – French & Italian – then the assumption the average Thai makes regarding falangs being ill-conditioned to eat spicy food is not without merit. Baba even commits a ‘logical suicide’ when she refers to herself as not being an “exception”, but later concludes that there are only “some” who belong in her gastronomic ranks. Also, it was not I who correlated the “mere exposure” to world cuisines with the ability to consume spicy foods. You pointed out that the average Thai’s narrow understanding of the falang palate is essentially due to their ignorance. Quote: “They don’t seem to understand that, these days, the majority of westerners grow up eating food from all over the world…” My counter argument remains: whether one is falang or not, eating foods from different countries doesn’t necessarily mean one will develop a tolerance for capsaicin. Case in point – my familiarity with regional Mexican dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula doesn’t mean I’d have a penchant for the fiery moles of Oaxaca. We are discussing about two entirely different issues – culinary exposure versus capsaicin palate conditioning. Just to let those in the dark know – fish and chips with a dash of Tobasco sauce ain’t gonna cut it. ;-)

    I, personally have the opinion that the development of an individual’s ablility to tolerate capsaicin is a relative concept, and is not restricted to any particular culture. Therefore, anyone can hone their heat-seeking skills if they so choose.

    Ciao and happy chowing…

    Got your copy of Halo 2?

  5. him (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 7:06 am

    Halo 2? Had it ages… great game… Not very spicy though!

  6. Ben Harris (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 12:21 pm

    Funny you should mention, I have Thai friends who refuse to eat anything that is too spicy – these same Thai people tend to sweat buckets when they’re outdoors. What we need is more generalisations – there aren’t enough.

  7. him (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 12:49 pm

    Actually, I think that saying there are not enough generalisations is a bit of a generalisation.

    Also, I kept forgetting to make one point in regards to the spicy food conundrum. Thailand is the only country I have ever been in where the people judge westerners in such a way. Everywhere else, you get what you ask for, no questions and no pre-judgement.

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