July 20, 2004

The Spice Must Flow

by peterb

If there's one annoying trend that has permeated Asian cuisine as prepared and served throughout America, it's that I can hardly find a place where a server doesn't ask me "How spicy? 1 to 10?"

You don't ask me how much salt I want in the dishes that come out from the kitchen. You don't ask how much sugar you should put in the cheesecake. You don't offer me a choice of an omelette fried in yummy butter, healthy duck fat, or disgusting institutionalized margarine. Why do you ask about spice? A simple reason: people are stupid.

People, in this case, are not the cooks, but the customers. I actually pity the restaurant owners, serving staff, and chefs. There's no doubt that diners have wildly differing ideas of what "spicy" means. Here in Middle America, for example, put some black pepper on something and fiftysomething women will start having hot flashes and asking for more water to soothe their scalded tongues. So it's clear that the "1 to 10?" question has evolved as self-defense by restaurants that have had too many dishes sent back by people who think they like spicy food, but secretly don't. I understand why restaurants ask this question. I just don't like it.

The best -- by which I mean worst -- part of the "1 to 10?" scale is that it is illusory. The chef isn't going to say "Oh! A 6! I should add 3.5 grams of illegal szechuan peppers to this dish as I finish it" (nor should she). Rather, any response is going to be channeled into one of three categories. Here are the rules.

  • If the customer gives any number lower than 6, no spice at all.
  • If the customer answers 7 to 9, add some pepper.
  • If the customer says "10" then you can make it as spicy as it's supposed to be.

So, there are really only three levels. Then we apply the hidden rules to the customer's stated preference to determine which of the three levels they fall into.

  • If the customer is female, subtract 3 from whatever they say.
  • If this is an Indian restaurant and the customer is white, subtract 7 from whatever they say.
  • If this is a Chinese restaurant and the customer says "10" on a dish that's not really supposed to be that spicy, throw in enough hot pepper to kill a horse and destroy their taste buds, as punishment for being stupid. The dish will taste awful, but the dope eating it won't care.
  • If the customer is a regular, don't ask them. Just give them the dish the way it's supposed to be.

You'd think "Aha! I can just ask for the dish the way it's supposed to be from the get-go," but it turns out that in practice this usually doesn't work. You can get away with it if you're actually speaking to the person preparing your food. If you try it on a server -- at least, one that doesn't know you -- you're just going to confuse and upset them, and they'll wish you'd stop being difficult and just say a lousy number already.

If I'm eating out, it's in large part because I don't want to cook. I want to put my trust in you, the chef, to deliver a dish that represents your vision of what the dish should be like. So on a scale of 1 to 10, I want the dish to be spiced how you think it should be. Don't ask me. That's a cop-out.

If it really doesn't matter how the dish should be spiced, and it's reasonable for the customer to make the decision, then let her add her own at the table. If that's not practical then, well, maybe you should consider taking that dish off the menu. If you think a dish served "as it should be" is going to be too spicy for some diners, then just make sure the serving staff gives them adequate warning. If the customer plows ahead and is sad because their spicy dish is spicy, it's their own fault. Would you accept criticism from a vegetarian who was upset that their steak contained meat?

Next week: people who ask for their steaks "well done," and why they must be destroyed.

Posted by peterb at July 20, 2004 04:54 PM | Bookmark This

When [ethnic] restaurant says "how spicy?" I smile and ask "[ethnic] scale or American scale?". And then we both have a little laugh, and they say "ethnic!" and I say "uhhh, 3 then", or they say "American!" and I say "10 of course". And then we both know precisely where we stand.

But of course, I'm not like Mr Cranky here.

Posted by Jonathan Hardwick at July 20, 2004 08:19 PM

You can call me Mr. Cranky, but: the set of Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh that don't ask you "How spicy?" happens to be very close to the set of the best Chinese restaurants in town: Tasty, Orient Kitchen on Baum, and Rose Tea Cafe.

I don't think that's a coincidence.

Posted by peterb at July 20, 2004 10:52 PM

It took a few orders from an Indian place near me (which seems to cater to the local South Asian community) to get them to make my English friend's Chicken Vindaloo properly "hot", despite our responding "very" to the "How spicy?" question. I think our saying "he's English, he can handle it" was what got him ultimate satisfaction.

Posted by Stewart Clamen at July 22, 2004 07:48 PM

I've learned that the best way to let a restaurant know that you're serious about your spice is to learn the word for "hot" in the relevant language. Even if you're a pasty-looking white chick, if you say "spicy" in Thai, they'll know you're not just farting around.

Posted by Hapax at July 25, 2004 08:45 PM

Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January