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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.

                2. I think it depends on the cuisine. There are plenty of dishes that include things that aren't intended to be eaten: the whole coriander pods in rogan josh, the little bones from a mostly-disintegrated pig's foot in menudo, the whole dried chiles in chongquing chicken, etc.

                  But you were in a fusion restaurant. Which presumably caters to an a audience that's broader in tastes, experiences, and tolerances than a hard-core ethnic joint. And it sounds as though the pepper was both hidden and so picante that a reasonable person might not see it and might not be able to tolerate the heat.

                  So although I disagree with the notion that everything on the plate or in the dish must be edible, this seems like a situation where the chile was supposed to have been removed, and, if not, should have been the subject of a warning.

                  BTW, since when did Vietnamese cooks use habaneros?

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    If something on a plate is not edible, there should be a VERY good and VERY clear reason for that. Cause people like me, I'll eat anything under the assumption that if it LOOKS edible, it must BE edible, given the context.

                    Really, the only things I can think of that clearly wouldn't be edible would be, like, carved fruit or ice beneath oysters or something. AB, what are you thinking of?

                    1. re: tatamagouche

                      He gave some pretty good examples of things that shouldn't be eaten (dried chiles and other spice pods, bones, etc.). But generally those are self-evident.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        Right. Apologies if I wasn't clear—my point was that I generally *agree* with the notion that everything on the plate should be edible, with a few exceptions, as opposed to the other way around.

                      2. re: tatamagouche

                        Re: "people like me, I'll eat anything under the assumption that if it LOOKS edible, it must BE edible." Me, too. Which is exactly how I've bitten down on cardamom pods and this little piggy's wrist (?) bones. No harm done, but I figure it's on me.

                        My point was that if you're eating in a cultural context you're unfamiliar with, you have to be prepared for surprises. Pay closer attention, take smaller bites, ask more questions.

                        But Ruth was at a (presumably) upscale fusion place. Where I totally agree that there should have been some warning if anything in the dish was potentially inedible. Or even unpalatable.

                      3. re: alanbarnes

                        Exactly. There's a basic rule in liability, that if you're eating chicken on the bone and you choke on a bone, that's your fault. If you're eating a boneless chicken breast and you swallow a small fragment of bone, that's the restaurant's fault. It's all about reasonable expectations. I expect tons of dried chiles in my Sichuan food -- in a dish of claypot catfish, not so much. And as you said, I wasn't expecting a habanero in a Vietnamese restaurant at all!

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          as usual, alanbarnes gives a great answer.

                          and, yeah, there are no habaneros in Vietnamese cooking, so I think it must have been an accident?

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            Right, I've seen plenty of dried whole chiles in Chinese dishes. I usually just push them aside, though I might cut of some bits to eat with the other parts.

                          2. Habanero peppers are NOT inedible. They may not be pleasurable to eat by most (I for one can't tolerate them), but they are not inedible.

                            I think it would be prudent to remove them from a dish before serving, but personally I would celebrate finding a restaurant that didn't "put the food through a blander" before serving it to me because I am not (insert ethnic ID here).

                            1. I would absolutely have said something. At dinner with friends at House of Blues in Las Vegas, a habanero was used as garnish. My friends teenage son popped the pepper in his mouth before anyone could warn him. Naturally eye popping pain ensued. Management caught wind of what was happening and bent over backwards to help. Milk, ice water etc was proferred. Ultimately, unprompted they comped the entire bill (5 people including drinks) because they felt the server should have warned the young man about the garnish.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: baseballfan

                                That was very nice of them to do, but more to the point, rather than expecting the server to warn patrons, why in the world would they use a habanero as a garnish in the first place? There are plenty of other peppers that could also provide a touch of orange to the plate.

                                1. re: susancinsf

                                  I think they basically threw the server under the bus by making it out to be his fault. Our party questioned that as well and the server was tipped on the full bill since we didn't feel he was in any way to blame.

                                  1. re: baseballfan

                                    That was my thought as well. Glad he got the full tip!

                              2. how do you know for sure that it wasnt meant to be eaten. many people, can and do eat habenero's. You could ask if its a mistake, but without proof, its unfair to assume. If you didnt like the dish, I would refrain from ordering it next time.

                                13 Replies
                                1. re: nkeane

                                  I wouldn't say that "many" people can and do eat whole habaneros. As people have noted, habaneros are not typically used in Vietnamese cuisine, and this dish wasn't otherwise spicy -- if it were, I would have been more careful. I'm leaning toward thinking that it somehow got into the pot by mistake.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    we also dont know for sure this was a Habanero. could be any of several look alikes that are more commonly used in Viet. cooking. then again, even if it were a Habanero, the OP did say this place was "fusion". wouldnt that fit the bill perfectly?

                                    my main problem with the OP's post is that it was ASSUMED to be a mistake, and ASSUMED to be inedible. Habaneros are very much edible, and Many(there are 6.3billion people on earth....at least a few million of them like habaneros.....a few million fits my description of "many") people eat them regularly. The prudent thing to have done is inquire about the pepper in a non-confrontational manner.

                                    1. re: nkeane

                                      Maybe there are parts of the world where people routinely eat whole habaneros, but the United States is not one of those places. I wouldn't expect a habanero in a dish unless it was specifically indicated as a spicy dish -- this was not. If it were the kind of dish where I could reasonably have expected a whole ultra-hot chile (whether it was actually a habanero or a different, similar chile), I would have been more careful. Even if you do find whole habaneros to be edible, you still might find it unpleasant to bite into one in when you weren't expecting it.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        in said circumstance the question should have been "what chef worth his salt would compose such a dish?" which would be a valid question.

                                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      True, not many eat habaneros. This was at chili cookoff, where they regularly have pepper eating contests. This fireman lost to a young kid, who ate another habanero, even after he had won!
                                      To your point, I think you should have been more observant. There are frequently inedible ingredients in Asian food. You did order it. It was an Asian restaurant (fusion or not), and I believe peppers are not uncommon in some "hot pots". To quote Wikipedia, "In Thailand, hotpot is called "sukiyaki", although it is quite different from Japanese-style sukiyaki. A sauce, often mixed with broth from the hot pot, is based on tofu, sesame seed oil, chilis, and garlic."
                                      Did they ask you how hot you wanted it? They did me the last time I ordered the same dish, but with sole. There were peppers in many of our dishes (Szechuan Chinese place).

                                      1. re: Scargod

                                        No, they didn't ask how hot I wanted it. There was no indication this was a dish that would include very hot peppers, and no indication from the first few bites I had of the dish that there might be a hot pepper lurking. I'm fairly familiar with spicy Asian cuisines, including Thai and Sichuan dishes loaded with hot peppers, and I have no problem with that. I object to biting down on a very hot pepper that's part of the sauce of an otherwise fairly mild dish.

                                        1. re: Scargod

                                          "There are frequently inedible ingredients in Asian food." I object! Someone had to.

                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                            May be Scargod had things like lime leaves and visible pieces of lemon grass in mind. Whole slices of ginger may fall in the category. Essential flavoring, but usually not something you want to chomp on. 'Occasional' might be more accurate than 'frequently'.

                                            Isn't it more acceptable in Asian cultures to take items into your mouth, suck the flavoring off, and then remove them. Poultry, for example, is often hacked into bite size pieces, bone and all, in Chinese cooking.

                                            1. re: paulj

                                              Right on both counts. Good on you!

                                              But, ahem, we don't "hack" that chicken. Cleaver work requires practice and skill.

                                            2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                              Yes, I am referring to inedible lemon grass, pithy ginger, whole, or parts of, dried peppers, lime rind, lime leaves, chicken bones... I could probably come up with more.

                                              1. re: Scargod

                                                Most of those things can (and do) go into your mouth without causing harm.

                                                1. re: Scargod

                                                  OK, but let's go one more: a large proportion of chicken & meat in Asia is stir fried or prepared in a similar way, meaning just the meat cut up in bite-sized bits. By contrast, Americans eat a lot of steaks and chicken bone-in. If I use lime zest or dried chiles, they're meant to be eaten. When I use lemon grass, it is only very finely sliced part of the white base - and meant to be eaten. A large stalk or a lime leaf are clearly not meant to be eaten; but I remove those prior to serving - as we all do with bay leaves.

                                                  The real case where Asians leave inedible stuff behind is fish. Americans eat so little whole fish that even many hounds can't deal with whole fish. But that's funny because I think Americans are more used to eating whole crabs and lobsters and oysters in the shell than Asians. Cooking and removing the flesh of shellfish for final preparations is more common in Asia.

                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                    True, true. Americans and fish can be a recipe for disaster. I had an American friend nearly choke to death on a grilled sardine sandwich because she happily started eating as though there wasn't a head in there.

                                                    Sandwiches are a bit of an exception, though. In other foods, it just makes sense to pay attention to what you're eating. Whole clove of garlic, hot pepper, peppercorn, whole clove, bone, piece of fat ... it's usually best if they're not in the final product, but you know, you want to be careful when eating in general.

                                                    Oh, not to mention the German friend who almost broke a tooth on a coin in a cake...

                                        2. Here's someone who had a similar experience at Monsoon in Seattle


                                          "I inevitably ordered the claypot catfish, with a side of jasmine rice to sop up all of the incredible sauce. You really cannot miss this fish — served straight out of the hot claypot, it is tender and sweet and sticky with a constant low level spicy burn. Was warned about the single hot pepper in my bowl, but ate it anyway. Didn’t quite see God, but there was a brief out-of-body moment. "

                                          And Google sample from a book, Catafish and Mandala:

                                          "In Uncle Tu's pot, I see he has splurged and added diced pork fat, whole red chilis, and scallions."

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: paulj

                                            Interesting. Maybe the "single hot pepper" was supposed to be there -- I just wasn't warned!

                                            1. re: hannaone

                                              Ah. So it does. So, we've identified the pepper and ascertained that this dish often contains *one* very hot pepper. So it wasn't a mistake -- the mistake was just that I wasn't warned that the pepper might be too hot to eat.

                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                Was the stem left on? That would have been a good signal to avoid eating it. But if it was trimmed off, that's just an invitation to eat the pepper.

                                              2. re: hannaone

                                                Now that's an interesting possibility. Seems like this particular pepper is pretty unpredictable, heat-wise. http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/go/8...

                                                On the Scoville scale, it can range from 5k ("hmmm, that's a spicy jalapeno") to over 30k ("please God let me die now"). Not quite as bad as a habanero (100k), but well on the way there.

                                                If this restaurant were used to using 5k peppers and got a 30+k pepper that looked exactly the same, it would explain a lot. I mean, you don't really need to warn somebody that there's a jalapeno in the dish. But the chile Ruth got is a whole 'nother matter.

                                                Ruth - just think of yourself as the kid that got the candy bar with the golden ticket. But substitute "napalm" for "golden."

                                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                                  Quite a few of the Asian peppers are very unpredictable.
                                                  Had several Korean green chilies from the same plant once, the first couple were mildly spiced and somewhat sweet and I was dipping them in red pepper paste to take the heat up a few notches, the next one one had me breathing fire for the next hour or so.

                                              3. Wimp.

                                                Suck it up. If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.

                                                3 Replies
                                                  1. re: alkapal

                                                    I guess my (poor attempt at) sarcasm doesn't come across well through the World Wide Web ...


                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                      if you changed your avatar to a smirk, maybe......

                                                1. It's pretty common for whole chilies to go from pot to plate in the food of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It's good practice to look at whats on our fork.

                                                  1. I am not sure it was a mistake. I have been to restaurants that seem like they put one piece of habenero or other extremely hot pepper on every dish, regardless of what level of heat is ordered. Depending on the dish, the pepper may blend with the other items and I have the unpleasant experience you mentioned.

                                                    My thoughts are if you do not order a hot dish, the hot pepper should not be included, but I mention to the server next time to leave off any hot elements.

                                                    5 Replies
                                                    1. re: queencru

                                                      I have a rather basic Vietnamese cookbook that has a paragraph in the intro about cutting a pepper into a decorative flower.

                                                      The fact that the rest of this catfish dish was not spicy lends credence to the decoration idea. A braised dish like this would have been much hotter if a chile as hot as this had been there all the time.

                                                      I have question about presentation. Was the fish served in the clay pot that it was cooked in?

                                                      1. re: paulj

                                                        Fish was served in the claypot it was cooked in. The pepper was cooked in with the dish, not a garnish. The dish was not spicy -- that's why it was such an unexpected shock. I've eaten many, many spicy Asian dishes with lots of peppers that I know to approach with care.

                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                          Come to think of it, since most of the heat is in the ribs, an intact pepper won't contribute nearly as much of a bite to the sauce as a minced one. Especially if the sauce has not been stirred much.

                                                          1. re: paulj

                                                            Right, although I thought most of the bite was in the seeds.

                                                            BTW, the tip of my tongue is still feeling sort of ... scorched.

                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                              The majority heat is in the pithy parts of the pepper, it just gets into the seeds mostly by proximity.

                                                    2. I still say, from the description in the OP, it DOES NOT sound like a habanero!!!!!!!!!

                                                      No way this could be mistaken for "a bit of carrot" nor could it mistakenly be forked up. And habaneros are completely edible, spicy with a wonderful fruity taste.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: janetms383

                                                        If you'd actually read the thread, you'd see the pepper has been tentatively identified as a Vietnamese tear-jerker, which closely resembles a habanero.

                                                        A pepper that has been cooked until it is soft loses much of its volume, especially a thin-walled pepper such as the ones under discussion.

                                                      2. Sorry you had to endure that pain. By any chance, did you have the catfish with caramel sauce at Slanted Door? Because I had that dish there a year or two ago and also encountered that pepper. It wasn't as hot as a habanero but it was pretty spicy. Luckily I have a high spice threshold but understand that not everybody could deal with it. If it was a fusion type of place, I'm surprised that they didn't give you a warning.

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: Miss Needle

                                                          Close. It was the catfish clay pot at the Slanted Door. I witnessed the event and in retrospect I'm impressed with how well my sister endured the agony.

                                                          1. re: jlafler

                                                            Yeah, same dish. Catfish in caramel sauce in claypot. So, was your "encounter" with the pepper deliberate, or accidental?

                                                            I guess my point is, is it so hard to say "watch out for the pepper, it's really hot!" when you deliver the dish?

                                                            1. re: jlafler

                                                              Yes, that's exactly the same dish I had! When I encountered the pepper, I first didn't know what to do with it? Was it for decoration? Was it meant to be eaten? Well, the curiosity got the better of me. It was one of those "Ooooh!" moments. One bite sufficed at the time being. Then towards the end of the meal, I decided to inflict some more pain on myself by finishing it off. Actually, I found the sauce way too sweet for my taste and needed something to cut through the sweetness. And I also think that I have some bizarre addiction to the endorphins and couldn't help myself.

                                                              Ruth, hope your tongue isn't permanently damaged! : )

                                                              1. re: Miss Needle

                                                                Me too. The tip still feels a little tender! You're very brave (or very foolish). I've always considered myself a "moderate" when it comes to chiles -- I think I top out at about a seven on a scale of one to ten.

                                                                This whole experience has been very educational, though. I've learned about Vietnamese tear-jerker chiles and that Vietnamese fish dishes never contain carrots.

                                                          2. Coming to this one late, but I would say it's absolutely never acceptable to put something that hot whole into a dish, under any circumstances -- unless you're specifically and consensually eating in some kind of chili-head context. Let me be clear: I have no sympathy for people who order it extra-hot and can't take it. But a dish that isn't advertised as scorching should never cause you pain -- period.

                                                            I almost never complain in restaurants, but I would have raised holy hell over that. That's gross negligence, whether it was left in the serving dish by accident or intended to be there. It's nothing to laugh off. My entire meal would have been completely ruined, and I wouldn't have taken it lightly, especially if it's a spendy place.