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Jun 25, 2010 04:53 PM

Spicy Etiquette

This is partly a complaint and a request. First off, I like spicy food and I don't mean a little extra cumin. I mean food that your head sweats, you mop your face, your heart races and the endorphins go wild. I am a chili head.

No matter where I go whether it be Mexican, Asian or Thai I say....."I want it extra, extra, extra hot." "I want it to hurt." What I usually get is a scoville unit of 100.

So, is there a specific etiquette that I don't know about? A secret menu that is only shared with certain ethnic groups? Yes, I am white but I like really spicy food.

Are there any other chili heads out there and how do you navigate through a menu at {insert your restaurant here} to get a meal that brings the heat? I would appreciate any help, idea's or names of establishments you might have that would help me in my quest. :)

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  1. i'm with you - i joke that i have an asbestos palate :) i know ipsedixit is the same way, so hopefully she'll chime in with her thoughts/tips.

    the language barrier in some ethnic places can make it difficult to get your point across. i always look at the menu to see if there's any sort of key or scale for heat, or of they have any extra-spicy dishes marked with an icon. sometimes pointing that out to the server can help.

    for recommendations about specific restaurants & dishes, you should post on your local board.

    9 Replies
    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

      Geez, all this time I've been thinking ipsedixit is a dude (though at times I thought it could have been a she)! You sometimes can't tell online.

      Liveitloud, I totally empathize as I get a rush out of the spice as well. These days I haven't been as insistent with the restaurants as super spice isn't great for my health. But becoming a regular at a place can help. I do remember one instance where I totally regretted asking the chefs to make it super spicy. They took it as a dare and made my Thai dish so hot it was barely inedible. I ended up vomiting on the street later that night. It was spicier than Brick Lane House's phaal curry (which they make with a gas mask).

      1. re: Miss Needle

        He is a prosecutor in LA.
        To the question, I sometimes bring a small bottle of my favorite hot sauce in my pocket for these possibilities. No, it's not cooked in and through, but it helps.

        1. re: Veggo

          Yep. I travel just about everywhere with a Knapsack and in it is small bottles of my home made hot sauce and El Yucateco xxx.
          Again not always applicable to all cuisines but useful for those times when" sending it back "is not an option.

      2. re: goodhealthgourmet

        Well, I did this once and it worked quite well, and I made a lifelong friend in the process.

        I ask the owner/chef if he (or she) enjoys spicy foods. If the answer is "yes" then I offer to buy him his favorite spicy dish on the menu -- made exactly the way he likes it. My only request as part of this offer is that I get the same exact dish for me.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          ipsedixit, I've been in the business of spicy (Sichuan) food for 18 years and your answer is the finest I've ever gotten to this conundrum.

          Yes, it's all about the chef. What a wonderful idea.

          I'll also take a moment to give a ++ to the folks who bring their own spice amalgam/hot sauce, too!

          For the OP:

          If sweaty-forehead, endorphine-driving spice is what it's all about for you, try asking your local Chinese restaurant (with a Sichuan or Hunan chef) to make these:

          重慶辣子雞 Dry sauteed chicken with chili peppers. This is an insanely simple, insanely hot combination of quick-cooked chicken in a dry rub, surrounded by nothing but Chinese celery and mounds of sauteed dry peppers. We just eat the chicken and leave the peppers but you may, as some of my customers do, want to put the peppers on your rice and eat them, too.

          干燒牛筋 again, "dry sauteed" -- but beef tendon in a saucy casserole-style dish. The spice plays so well off of the mellow, long-cooked beef tendon it's amazing.

          水煮牛肉 "water-cooked" beef sounds innocuous (sp?) but if you *implore* them to use lots of "la jiao feng" (spicy pepper powder) it'll be right up there. And the way they make their red-hot oil is the key to this dish. It's gotta be their own; if they admit they use a prepared red-hot oil then their cuisine's not going to be hot enough.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            ipsedixit, what a great idea -- will certainly try it.

            Quite some years ago, I was back in my home town -- a city not exactly at the forefront of adventurous eating -- when Szechwan food first arrived via a very small, low-key restaurant. Initial visit: ordered something marked "hot"; said I that would really, truly like to have it hot; chef said that I probably wouldn't like it, but compromised on "somewhat hot this time, and if that's OK, next time I will fry you." Dinner was fine but bland. Next time, as agreed, he turned up the heat. It was delicious (though not really all that fiery) & I was eating away happily when the excessively entitled couple next to me decided that they weren't getting enough attention, & the woman actually demanded a taste of my dish to see what someone else had that she didn't. Erm, well, OK ... I did warn her that it was hot but oh no, she insisted. And 30 seconds later I warned her to cool her mouth off with rice, not glasses of water; she didn't listen that time either. Once she got her breath back, though, she did scream at me as if I'd tried to poison her. If that's what even modest Scoville levels cause, no wonder restaurant owners are reluctant to take the risk.

            Ordering things that are still in the shell or on the bone -- or in small family restaurants, just asking the waiter for a spicy fish (or whatever critter you prefer) dish -- seems to help. (The drawback is that , for example, I still do not know the name of a wonderful Korean fish stew I used to get, & the restaurant that served it is gone, so I may never be able to re-create it.)

            As for South Asian food, see luckyfatima's post. My previous husband was Pakistani but preferred his food only moderately spicy. My mother-in-law & I liked serious heat, so we added chopped green chiles to our portions or just ate them whole. You can ask for fresh green chiles on the side at restaurants.

            And for the chileheads yet to come (as well as for yourself if you plan to come back), when you do get your food hot enough, thank the folks at the restaurant profusely. Don't know if you really catch more flies with honey, but you can sure catch more fire that way.

            1. re: mshenna

              mshenna -- I think the Korean fish stew you are referring to is called maeuntang. Lots of recipes online for it!

              1. re: link_930

                Thank you! (Late reply but haven't been on the boards lately.) Off to search.

              2. re: mshenna

                i'm trying to think what else the woman next to you could have done to be even more rude than she was- and I can't think of much. I would have told her something that's unprintable here.

          2. The following methods have been occasionally sucessful:

            "I want it the way you make it in your country. I want it too hot for an Anerican to eat."

            Return to same restaurant: "I asked for ... yada yada ... last time and it wasn't hot enough. PLEASE make it the way you make it in your country. I want it too hot for an Anerican to eat."

            Rinse, repeat, etc.

            Subtle method: Ask for some esoteric ethnic dish not listed on the menu. If they have it, they will know you are for real. In Chinese restaurants, I refuse to allow a fork on the table, and ask if the spicey whatever will be hot enough.

            No method will work in a restaurant that is less than 50% non-English-speaking ethnic patronage, unless it has only been open a few days and hasn't figured out that the average American is a spice woos.

            1. Because of perception that "foreigners" don't really really like spicy food. What you need to do is establish a relationship with your favorite restaurant. Once they get to know you and your taste, they'll get over that perception.

              1. I think this is regional. I've never been able to get authentically spiced food in SF, but can get it here in Indiana. Go figure.

                7 Replies
                1. re: pikawicca

                  are these restaurant in Indiana the real-deal (e.g. non-English-speaking staff, mostly non-English-speaking customers) ethnic places? the only reason i ask is that one of the only spots here in San Diego where i actually got them to serve me blow-your-head-off spice on the first attempt is a less-than-authentic Thai place in La Jolla.

                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    We have one Thai and one Indian that will definitely blow your head off. Both are staffed/owned by Thais and Indians, but so are the places in SF that I lament about. Is there anyone out there who has ever had seriously spicy food in SF?

                    1. re: pikawicca

                      Have you been to Lahore Karahi or Shalimar? I would assume their food is reasonably spicy & perhaps would up the ante if asked. I remember the first time we got take out from Naan 'n Curry...opened the take out container, looked at the pool of oil & upon taking a bite, I quipped to my family "everyone pop a zantac" : )

                      1. re: ceekskat

                        Is Nihari a good Indo-Paki dish for heat? This a long cooked beef or mutton stew using tough cuts like the shank. I've only seen it a couple of times on menus, once at 'kabab house' in Seattle, the other a suburban LA place. Both times it was pushing my heat tolerance.

                        1. re: paulj

                          I had nihari for the first time last year at the highly touted Sabri Nihari on Devon ave. in Chicago & was underwhelmed. I don't recall it being too spicy & in fact was surprised. I have seen it on menus locally but have yet to of family are not fans (perhaps if there were a mutton version, only seen beef). BTW, just looked at a local menu & it does say "a very spicy dish".


                      2. re: pikawicca

                        The people at Hunan on Sansome are generally pretty responsive when you ask for extra hot.

                      3. re: goodhealthgourmet

                        what's the place called, if you don't mind me asking? I'm always on the lookout for super spicy, but well flavored Thai food in SD.

                    2. what does cumin have to do with spicy????

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: celeryroot

                        If you grew up in Arizona and your favorite relatives lived in a small town in southeastern Illinois you'd understand. The one town I'm talking about doesn't take kindly to anything besides salt and pepper, and sometimes onion.

                        1. re: celeryroot

                          Quote: what does cumin have to do with spicy????

                          Absolutely nothing which is my point haha.

                          I am amazed what people try to pass off as spicy/hot. Thanks to everyone for the posts. I usually look for those little hot peppers they put next to their menu items. I'll find the one with 4 and tell them I want 10. Sadly, hasn't worked out too well. I have gotten to the point where I asked for 10 peppers and then ask for chili oil on the side.

                          Being from Texas you would think that the Mexican food would bring it, but I found through most of my Hispanic friends they can't even eat things as hot as I like it.

                          I will certainly take all of the good advice you all have given and see what I can do . It gets a bit old carrying around a bottle of Dave's Insanity into a restaurant and usually gets odd looks from waitstaff but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

                          About the only thing I have found that comes close are the nuclear wings at one of the wing places here in town but I'm not much on fried food.

                          1. re: Liveitloud

                            I don't anyone would look at you funny if you added Dave's Insanity to your Big Mac.

                            Besides the heat, which you don't seem to be getting, what do you like about these ethnic foods?

                            I wonder if would help to show knowledge about the various dishes, knowledge that goes beyond 'I want it hot'.

                            Yesterday on the FN Chefs v City Portland episode, the teams drew cards at a Szechwan restaurant to determine which dish they had to eat. One team got 'cumin beef', the mildest selection. The other got 'spicy pigs ears', one of hotest, and chewiest choices. That kind of dish was much better split among 6 than eaten as an endurance event (man v food style).

                            My guess is that the heat level of exotic will be more authentic. You aren't going to get hot fried rice, no matter how many peppers you specify. But you could get hot mapo dofu.

                            1. re: Liveitloud

                              i have an uncle who thinks dill is to spicy,go figure

                              1. re: Liveitloud

                                So, there is a difference between authentic and just plain hot as hell...personally, I want authentic! IF YOU JUST WANT HEAT...ASK THEM FOR THEIR HOT SAUCE!
                                ALSO, MOST CHINESE AND MEXICAN FOOD IS FRIED!

                                1. re: AG4JAZZ

                                  Ok. Deep breaths. Please stop yelling. And that last sentence doesn't make any sense.

                                  1. re: AG4JAZZ

                                    You're right, you're right, now calm down. ;-)