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Jun 17, 2007 04:47 AM

Do Indian people complain about spicy food? (and other late night musings)

Allergies and food sensitivity should be a product of one's physiology and not of culture, right?

Last year I spent 6 months traveling through Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and South Korea (and most recently returned from a month in Japan)

I find myself now wondering:

- where are the Indian people who complain about the spicy food?
- where are the Japanese people who complain that they don't like fish?
- where are the Chinese people who can't eat the gluten in the noodles or who are allergic to soy?
- where are the Vietnamese people who think the fish sauce is stinky?

But here in Los Angeles:
I go out to a restaurant and, for example, hear a whiny teenage girl with an LV purse and film producer parents complaining that her curry is too spicy, or perhaps a child who refuses to eat anything but chicken nuggets, or when I hear an actress asking the waiter to hold the penne from her pesto because she can't eat gluten.

This begs the question... are there equivalent food nitpicks elsewhere in the world? Is there in Delhi, right now, a snooty rich girl with an LV purse complaining that her hamburger is not spicy enough and that she can't eat the bun?

My theory is that our nitpickiness is one of the privileges of living in a wealthy society where we have the time to consider such things. I also feel that our lack of a healthy, indigenous American diet causes food sensitivity and health problems. For example, my sister was a vegetarian for 15 years, thought she was doing something healthy for her body, yet over the years she suffered all sorts of skin conditions, mild loss of hair, stomach ulcers and other untidy gastric problems. Amazingly (and suddenly) she decided to eat a moderate amount of meat again (fish and chicken) and within two months, all of these problems cleared up. She was just as surprised as any of us were.

I really feel that if America had a deeply rooted history of a vegetarian diet as, for example, India does that this would not be a problem. But since in America we accept instant foods, fake soy burgers and fake bacon and pizza as viable alternatives for vegetarians as the result of a lack of a culturally well-established and nutritionally rounded vegetarian diet, people will go out to restaurants and pick apart a dish to avoid potential health risks when perhaps avoiding certain items may be causing the problems to begin with.

By the way, I am speaking as a type I diabetic, so I am not insensitive to people with dietary restrictions. However not once in my 20 years as a diabetic have I asked for a special modification be made to a meal-- I simply eat what I know gives me the best results on my blood glucose monitor. However I realize that most people with health related food requests have only their feelings to go by and not a quantifiable readout from a machine.

But still I wonder, how many people out there are suffering from health problems which they have brought on themselves, like my sister, through lack of knowledge about what exactly a healthy diet is?

Mr Taster
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  1. I am really curious to hear other responses, as I find this a truly fascinating topic. (Thanks, Mr. Taster.)
    FWIW, I did a quick search and came across this comment from an allergist in India, at
    "Now food allergies are much more common in India as compared to the western countries. They quote figures of two to six per cent. Ours is 16-20 per cent. Among the food allergies also, we differ a lot with the west. Rice is virtually an unknown allergen in the west. In India, we have nine to 10 per cent patients positive to rice."

    3 Replies
    1. re: emi50

      Wow... Very interesting to hear. It seems like a lot of people want to say "this is where we have things wrong" and look at such-and-such continent and how they are not spoiled by the "crass" modern world. The fact is that the whole world is changing rapidly - for the good, and for the bad. It's not just the U.S. or the West.

      1. re: emi50

        Where is his data coming from? Note that he says "Nine to 10 per cent patients", which makes me suspect that he's essentially calculating this proportion from the number of people who are already reporting to a doctor for suspected allergies.

        I think the 16-20 per cent figure comes from similar calculations because 20 per cent is just an absurd figure.

        Growing up in India I knew only one person in my extended circle who had a food allergy.

        1. re: anthead

          is it possible that the higher figure may be based on including the poorer group of people that may not see doctors and just live with their problem? i don't know just a question/thought

      2. Gosh, I love this post! You really made me smile!

        I have my own "ugly" American story that relates to your musings on wealth which allows us to be picky. I hate lamb. The mere smell of it cooking makes me nauseous. Well, good luck with that in the Middle East! I can't tell you the number of times I would be invited into the home of a poor family and be generously offered a meal of lamb. Young and stupid, I would make up excuses that I was a vegetarian as a means of getting out of eating the lamb. I really was trying to find a polite way of backing out; looking back, I was just rude. They, being incredibly poor, simply could not understand my ability to be so choosy as to rule out an entire subset of food.

        1 Reply
        1. re: chaddict

          my cousin found a solution to that dilemma. Poor family cooks expensive ingredient that you might not like and tries to force feed it to you. She transfered said ingredient from her plate to the plates of the children of the family and invited them to help her eat it. Problem solved. Everybody is happy. Especially the kids.

        2. I have had a similar question about peanut allergies in Thailand. I just assumed that if there is a gene that makes you more likely to peanut allergies, that it had been bred out of this population, as anyone with a significant peanut allergy would never live to reproduce. But this is mere speculation.

          As for Indians who complain about spice, I can't comment on this population, but I can tell you that I know Koreans who complain about spice (Korean cuisine is of course known for spicy kimchi and red chile sauces). My mother is an incredibly picky eater. She doesn't like kimchi that is too spicy, and won't eat it with breakfast. She hates raw fish and so will not eat Hwe (the Korean version of sashimi). But the important thing is the phrase "too spicy". There is no question that she has a different tolerance for spicy, as she carries tabasco sauce in her purse for when we go to "north american" restaurants to spice up too bland food. So everything is relative, but at the same time, there are picky eaters all over the world and in every culture. But if you are starving, well, preferences will always take a back seat. We are very fortunate to live in a society where we can afford the luxury of pickiness.

          2 Replies
          1. re: moh

            It's the roasting peanuts that causes allergies. In my limited experience of other countries, peanuts are rarely dry roasted in asian countries where apparently many peanuts are consumed.


            1. re: moh

              moh, totally unnecessary to tell us that you are talking about "too spicy" after you mentioned "kimchee" and "breakfast" in the same sentence! Clearly we are talking about a whole different orientation to spices! (I adore hot food, and kimchee, but I'd just as soon eat the newspaper for breakfast...)

            2. I am standing and applauding right now, Mr. Taster. "My theory is that our nitpickiness is one of the privileges of living in a wealthy society where we have the time to consider such things." I would add to that "money," because masquerading meat and "fortified" water and such things are costly (not so much because they're expensive to produce, but because the market is willing to pay).

              And rather than reading pop culture guides on following x, y, or z diet, I recommend anyone going to a local bookstore and picking up a USMLE board review book or something of the sort and read the parts on biochemistry and metabolism, as well as the GI system. Really. Know the cause, understand the effect, make better choices.

              1. In the US, we're much more exposed to different cultures and expected to eat a wider variety of foods. My cousins who grew up in Taiwan came to the US and did not care for a lot of different cultural foods that I have always eaten (Mexican, Italian, etc.). They were really picky. My parents, having been in America for 40+ years, still choose to eat Chinese food and barely tolerate others. Their friends are the same. Most of my relatives can't/won't have dairy. It's not a sign of affluence that they can't. I read (can't confirm right now) that when America did food drops to some countries, they sent American type foods that the people had trouble eating and couldn't process. One thing I remember thinking funny was lemon poppyseed cake. (I'll look for references on this and post if I find them but it was years ago.) So, it's not fair to peg Americans as being pickier than other cultures.

                As far as the question on health problems brought on themselves, I highly agree. While I think the knowledge level is higher than it has been, I still think there is a lot of ignorance.

                17 Replies
                1. re: chowser

                  I think the point here is that your parents choose to eat Chinese food over others and therefore probably frequent Chinese restaurants rather than American ones. That isn't being picky at all, it's knowing what they enjoy and seeking it in appropriate places.

                  1. re: hrhboo

          's the passive aggressive thing with my mom where she'll go begrudgingly and then complain about how she never likes that kind of food afterwards. So, we've learned that it's just better to go w/ Chinese food. They are picky eaters. I complain that my American born and bred kids are picky eaters but they're much easier than my parents! I can take them to any kind of restaurant and know they'll be fine but not my parents.

                    1. re: chowser

                      how about everytime I'm with my Italian grandparents in Florida - they will choose to eat at an Italian chain like Macaroni Grill, and then they only get the salad and calamari. they still complain profusely about the meal afterwards, and really don't interpret most of the menu as Italian anyway. i don't get it.
                      you are lucky your family will eat in good places. it is next to impossible to find good italian food in this country that is not super super expensive. invariably, we say we should've stayed at home. maybe it's just a self-esteem booster for my grandmother -

                      1. re: fara

                        Reminds me of a short story were I learned that we were going to Europe (particularly Italy) for a wedding and was/am excited at the prospects. My father immediately remarked that he heard (from Chinese friends/coworkers) that they felt there was nothing to eat in Italy, just pizza and pasta!

                    2. re: hrhboo

                      I recently read results from a study on "what nationality are the best tourists" and China fared poorly, primarily because of the impression that they were not interested in local foods. Regardless of the country being visited - they wanted Chinese cuisine. So it's not just your parents, it appears endemic.

                      Btw, the US fared well, behind only the Japanese (who, in addition to being polite and decent tippers, apparently enjoy other foods than their own).

                      1. re: Panini Guy

                        That's interesting about the study--it's very similar to what I've experienced. But, my parents have been in this country for over 40 years so at some point, you'd think they might have adapted! I thought it was interesting in this discussion of whether Americans are pickier than other cultures. I think people tend to like the foods they grew up with and many have problems with other foods.

                        1. re: Panini Guy

                          I am not surprised. In Japan it's custom to bring back a regional specialty to share with your workplace when you come back from vacation so other people can share part of your vacation experience. I lived in a decent-sized city and there was a variety of chain and non-chain ethnic restaurants from which to choose, and many of the pubs also offered a more international menu.

                          1. re: queencru

                            Being from Minnesota, I thought a perfect "omiyagi" (gift you bring back from a trip) would be wild rice. Ha ha. You shoulda seen the looks on their faces. (Like, WTF?) The Japanese I know would barely even consider anything other than white rice.

                          2. re: Panini Guy

                            When I was in Rome with my parents, my Dad (who is Chinese from the Philippines) was on a mission to find Chinese food. We spent the whole day walking around Rome in search of a Chinese restaurant to satisfy my Dad's craving. Fortunately, we had a wonderful day exploring the city on foot, eating gelato along the way, and eventually found a decent Chinese restaurant that had my Dad smiling at the end of the night. It was neat hearing the servers speak Chinese to each other, Italian to the other guests, and English to us.

                            1. re: avena

                              THere used to be more than one (several) Ristorante Cinese in the Quattro Fontane area. One of my most indelible experiences in Rome occurred on the Metro - sitting across from two elderly Chinese matrons speaking Italian in a very high-pitched sing-song accent with vivid hand gesticulations. The Eternal City.

                            2. re: Panini Guy

                              This reminds me of going on tour groups with my parents as a kid. We'd book the tours outside of the US (a European tour that was based out of Paris, for example). My parents would often look towards tours run by the Chinese community because of the language barrier. That's fine, but the tours would always, always take you to the most awful Chinese restaurants wherever it stopped. Imagine being in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Belgium and eating Chinese food the entire time. It was simply what most of their customers demanded.

                              My parents do prefer Chinese food and living in Los Angeles, there's no shortage of it. However, they wouldn't complain when exposed to other foods. My mother, of all people, loves a properly made hamburger. Good quality beef, all the fixings, etc. She responds to McD's hamburgers with a glare.

                              1. re: geekyfoodie

                                Ha! In May, I was at Neuschwanstein Castle outside Munich and eating lunch after the tour. A Large group of Chinese tourists were lined up at the food court are. One saw me hacking away at a whole roasted chicken (shared w/ my mom). She pointed and yelled, "CHICKEN!?!?" and I yelled back "Yes!" This huge smile across her face, and all the other Chinese tourists got really excited and were nodding, chattering, and smiling.
                                I can only imagine they were tired of the spaetzles, schnitzels, and boiled white potatoes (although I cannot imagine that.) very funny.

                                1. re: stellamystar

                                  Where were these tours when I was a kid? My parents must have missed the memo. Out of a two-week tour around a handful of European countries (needless to say, we didn't stop for long anywhere), we had about three "native" meals. The rest were Chinese food. It was really tragic.

                                  I'd take food court German food in Munich (lovely city, great health care... which is an entirely different story) over lousy Chinese food everywhere. I did luck out as we were based out of Paris and my mother had spent nearly a decade there, so we had lots of opportunities to sample Parisian cuisine, but everywhere else... not so much.

                                  1. re: stellamystar

                                    The only thing I got sick of in Germany was doner kebab- I could have done with more the the stereotypical stuff actually.

                                2. re: Panini Guy

                                  Does that explain why, when we were traveling in China, our private tour guide kept trying to foist "western style breakfast" on us? Sorry, I don't eat SPAM at home and I sure ain't gonna eat it here. Seriously, why would I travel 3000 miles so I could eat a bad version of something at home. I actually played the "I'm a vegetarian" card (I'm not) so they would let me eat at the Chinese buffet instead. Apparently, in the guides experience, most westerners preferred western style breakfast.

                              2. re: chowser

                                "In the US, we're much more exposed to different cultures and expected to eat a wider variety of foods."

                                This might be true in some urban areas, but much of America has grown up without exposure to the variety of food available in our country. I, for example, grew up in the outskirts of DC in an Irish family that only ate meat and potato-type dishes. No spices. No unusual meats (never had lamb or veal or even fish other than fish sticks and frozen crabcakes). And very few fresh veggies - mostly canned or frozen and cooked until limp. My dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. still eat this way. My sister got exposed to new foods when travelling abroad. I developed a taste for 'ethnic' foods while working in restaurants.

                                Another poster made a point in another thread that as Chowhounds, we are the minority in this country. Most people stick with what they know, which is why chains are so popular. As to the food allergy thing, the American diet has been out of whack for a very, very long time.

                                1. re: mojoeater

                                  Sounds just like my childhood. (German heritage growing up in South Dakota.) Don't forget the canned mushrooms.