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Ouch! or Do inedible peppers belong on your plate?

I was having lunch today with my sister at a famous Vietnamese fusion restaurant. I put a forkful of catfish claypot in my mouth, vaguely noting that there was something bright orange in it but assuming it was a piece of carrot.

My mouth exploded. I spit it out. Upon examination, based on the size, shape (after being braised and lightly chewed), texture and color, it appeared what had gone into my mouth was a whole (seeds and all) habanero! Ouch. After trying all the available capsicum solvents on the table (wine, rice, duck confit -- which worked suprisingly well) over the course of several minutes I finally got the eye-watering pain down to a reasonable level (although three hours later I can still feel it -- it seems to have gotten into my gums and caused a mild tooth-ache-like headache).

So the questions: Did that pepper belong in that dish in that restaurant?Should this have been removed before serving, or is it okay to leave a habanero pepper in a dish served to an unsuspecting customer?

And does it matter how "unsuspecting" the customer is? I might expect to find an ultra-hot pepper in an "authentic" Thai restaurant, but not in a Vietnamese fusion restaurant with a mostly "gringo/tourist" clientele.

Under what circumstances is it okay to put a pepper that's not meant to be eaten in a dish? Should I have assumed this was a mistake and mentioned it to our server?

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  1. I'd say under NO circumstances. The server should have have warned you IF it was supposed to be there, but I have a hunch it wasn't. Most people can not tolerate the heat of a whole habanero chile. I would have said something to the server. (Slanted Door, perhaps? You were nice not to name them. Me, on the other hand....)

    3 Replies
    1. re: adamshoe

      I agree. Even if it was labeled a five-chili dish on the menu—it'd have to be twenty-five chilis to warrant that!

      I'd have mentioned it for sure. Even reading your e-mail is vicariously painful!

      1. re: adamshoe

        Yup. I'm actually surprised there are even habaneros in their kitchen -- I would have thought they topped out at jalapenos or maybe SE Asian birds-eye type chiles. Of course it's possible it wasn't a habanero but some other similar ultra-hot chile, but a habanero by any other name would taste as hot.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          From your description, it's doesn't sound like a whole habanero. If you fork up a habanero, it would be just about the only thing on your fork.

      2. I'm guessing the habanero was used to season the dish and they forgot to remove it from the final product.

        1 Reply
        1. If it's on the plate, it should be edible; if it's not edible, it shouldn't be on the plate.

          I'd have said something, absolutely.

          2 Replies
          1. re: mcsheridan

            Clearly this does not apply to many cuisines around the world. How about chicken on the bone or whole fish? Hard shell crabs, etc. Certainly not Sichuan cuisine in which a plate of Sichuan Chicken may be fifty percent whole dried hot peppers. Or Persian cuisine in which preserved lemons find their way onto the plate. No, I do not want them fished out of the stew. That would be horribly messy. I want to see it on my plate. It just isn't practical or custom of the trade.

            The OP ran into a problem that we all face when ordering spicy food. It isn't always clear what is meant to be eaten!

            1. re: Steve

              Was talking to SO about this thread and she remembered being at Scoozzi, a nice Italian place in downtown New Haven, CT. There was a pretty little red pepper on the edge of her plate. I think a lot of us that are into food are curious. So, she took a bite of it and found that it was terribly hot. Possibly a "cherry bomb" or similar small, hot pepper. She wasn't too happy with the surprise! I think in this instance, its being on the plate was inappropriate. If you order something "Diablo", that's one thing, but to decorate (?) the plate with a fiery pepper, another.

          2. When I eat Thai, and I see chiles in the food, I know I can't handle it and I don't eat it.

            Also, at home, we'll have whole chiles out as condiments. They are not meant to be eaten whole, but a smidgen is cut off and then used to flavor the food, or eaten.

            10 Replies
            1. re: jaykayen

              "IF you see it" being the operative phrase. RL thought what she saw was a carrot.

              1. re: tatamagouche

                I think this is a strange case of fusion restaurant/diner expectations/possible mistake mixups. Ruth might not have known that there are no carrots in any kind of fish dish in Vietnamese cuisine. Since I know that, I would not have assumed it was a carrot and then chomped away.

                1. re: jaykayen

                  OK, but the question remains to what extent the restaurant versus the diner is responsible for knowledge of a dish and its ingredients. Within reason, I'd vote for the former.

                  1. re: jaykayen

                    But as you noted, there are no habaneros in Vietnamese cuisine, either. Since you seem to know so much about it, is there some other kind of habanero-like chile that it could have been?

                    Are there really no carrots ever in any kind of fish dish in Vietnamese cuisine? Is this some kind of rule?

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I'm Vietnamese, by the way.

                      Even in European/American cooking, I don't think carrots and fish are a typical combination. It's not a rule, but it a strange combination.

                      Carrots actually do not show up in Vietnamese food that much, except pickled (in your sandwiches or nuoc mam) or in your salad. And, generally, they are grated or in coins/chips...not diced (habenero-shaped?)

                      If I were served a dish where there was a whole chili, I would not expect to be warned about it. However, in a fine dining restaurant, I would not expect to find a whole chili.

                      1. re: jaykayen

                        Well it is a fusion restaurant, so does the concept of "strange combination" apply?

                        1. re: julesrules

                          Um , fusion usually describes blending two different world cuisines, or well-known concepts to make something new. Fish and carrot is common where?

                          1. re: jaykayen

                            The seder table. Gefilte fish, boiled carrot. Goes together like hard-boiled eggs & salt water.

                            1. re: small h

                              you got me.

                              I don't put salt in the water of boiling eggs, and I've never felt like trying gefilte fish.

                              1. re: jaykayen

                                No, no, the salt water isn't for boiling the eggs, it's for dipping the eggs before you eat them. Boiling dissolves the salt thoroughly so you get a nice, saturated solution. The salt water is also supposed to symbolize the tears of slavery. So basically, you dip a symbol of spring in a symbol of suffering and end up with a nice nosh to tide you over while you wait for the matzoh ball soup to be served.

              2. I cook with them quite a bit. Always chopped very fine and in moderation. I have decorated a plate with a roasted one once. But I told my guests not to eat it. I had it tied with a small jalapeno with a thin scallion as decoration only. I made a point of mentioning that. In a restaurant I would not serve them whole, people would expect to eat them. Maybe a fine dining restaurant where there is some extra care and personal touches to each tables but again, I would shy away from putting them on general plates. Or put a small disclaimer in the menu itself mentioning the intensity of the dish.

                2 Replies
                1. re: kchurchill5

                  The dish itself wasn't particularly spicy (not as spicy as one of the other dishes we had that had bits of finely diced pepper in it). If it had been, I would have been eating more carefully! I'm starting to think it was a mistake and shouldn't have been in the dish at all -- maybe it got in there by accident.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    That's true, it wasn't a particularly spicy dish.

                    I'm sorry I didn't warn you in time. I realized it was something you probably didn't want to bite into about a half second too late.