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What is the Proper Way to Order in a Chinese restaurant to receive a spicy dish?

I'm a big fan of Chinese cuisine, especially the spicy foods of the regions of Sichuan and Hunan. Often when I order dishes listed as spicy, denoted by a 1-3 chili pepper on the menu, they come out without the expected heat level. It's really frustrating to order a dish listed as "spicy" and specify to the server that it should be served spicy, only to have the resulting dish have the spice level of green peppers.

Is there some secret code I'm not using? Is my picture hanging on some secret Internet corkboard indicating I can't handle the heat? Is there a perception that people like me (i.e. non-Asians) will send food back to the kitchen if it's served as directed? I'm frustrated. Is there some silver bullet I'm not using?

What say you, hive mind?

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  1. Have a look at this thread: "traditional spice levels..."
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/610464

    1. TOM I am with you ALL the way. It seems every chinese/thai place I have been to NEVER gives me a spicy dish, even after i ask specificly to make it spicier than normal. I hope someone gives up some answers, that thread below didn't give much insite... However, I don't really think there is anythign able to be done.

      The ONLY place that has ever gave me a spicy dish was a Thai Restaurant in Hilton Head , SC .. it since shut down... IT was the best asain dish I ever ate in my life

      3 Replies
      1. re: Augie6

        Augie, I used to order "hot" at New Dumpling House in Squirrel Hill, and it was always sufficiently hot. It's a couple of years since I ate there, but it's worth a shot.

        1. re: Jay F

          Thanks Jay. There was a vender in the strip that would always make a great spicy noodle type deal... Last time I went there the new person handed me a bottle of "hot sauce" .. I hate to ADD hot sauce to a dish after it is cooked. I am also not a salt and peper guy too

          1. re: Augie6

            order off the chinese menu at the new how lee... it'll be hot enough.

      2. I specify "Chinese" spicy, not "Canadian" spicy. It usually works. My BIL, whose Chinese-immigrant parents own a Chinese restaurant, told my sister (his wife) no say "not white spicy, real spicy". It alwaya works, but it might offend some.

        2 Replies
        1. re: CanadaGirl

          My father usually says, "like it was served to me in <insert native country>" or " how you would cook it for your family". And he will ask before ordering is the menu hotness scale is geared towards the American palate or the <insert native country> palate. It works for him.

          1. re: viperlush

            exactly what I was going to suggest Viper, DH used to go to lunch with a couple guys from his office - one from Korea, one from Vietnam. They told him to order things "Asian Hot".

        2. Two tips:

          1. Be very insistent. I'm not saying you have to be a jerk, but you simply must look the waiter squarely in the eye and make it extremely clear that you don't want regular "hot," you want "megahot." Hand gestures and choking signs often help get the point across, and I'm not kidding.

          2. Become a regular. If a restaurant gets to know you and understands you mean business when ordering hot dishes, they will be more likely to slake your thirst for lava. This is another thing I've learned from experience.

          1. I could be totally wrong about this, but my understanding from reading similar threads is -- assuming the waiter speaks Chinese -- to insist on "Ma La," which if I am not mistaken has something to do with hot, numbing spice. I gather that if you chant this insistently enough it acts as a secret code that you're serious about the heat.

            Others will undoubtedly know more.

            19 Replies
            1. re: acgold7

              There are no guarentees in life, but "ma la" works fairly well for me.

                1. re: DeppityDawg

                  "mala" means numbing hot, which only pertains to Sichuan food, so it's not a silver bullet.

                  1. re: Tom from Raleigh

                    Hunan cuisine also uses Sichuan peppercorns. In Hunanese feel their Sichuan neighbors use far too much of them in overpowering the dishes.

                      1. re: arktos

                        Yes.

                        One notes also the prevalent confusion between "Chinese" food and Szechuan/Sichan food (or Hunan food), using the terms interchangeably, even in this thread as a whole, except where regionality is stressed such as in this subthread. One does NOT normally expect most Cantonese dishes to be "hot"/fiery-spicy, for example, and asking for super-hot dishes in a pure Cantonese restaurant is a mismatch for the cuisine in a general sense anyway.

                        1. re: huiray

                          Exactly. The best shot is don't go to a generic Chinese place, go to a Szechuan place.
                          So far I have not seen anyone disappointed with the spice levels at Peter Chang's , though they know for me to usually tone down the 3 peppers to 2, I have seen people get stuff so hot that eyes were watering at neighboring tables.

                          1. re: huiray

                            Yeah, even here on Chowhound people refer to "Chinese" food. To me, that seems like talking about "European food". There are far more people in China than Europe and their cuisines vary a lot. But even restaurants themselves do this - calling themselves "Chinese" and offering food from all over.

                            It's as if a restaurant offered sauerbraten, spaghetti carbonara and pickled herring.

                            1. re: plf515

                              How many of the different Chinese cuisines employ soy sauce?

                              1. re: Jay F

                                I think all of them (although others are more expert on this); but then, all European cuisines employ salt.

                                1. re: plf515

                                  Soy sauce will always be a more distinctive item to me than salt (unless, say, something is so overloaded with salt as to be inedible).

                                  It would take a lot to make soy sauce-flavored dishes seem more distinct from one another than sauerbraten, carbonara, and pickled herring are for me.

                                  1. re: Jay F

                                    Not all Chinese cuisines use the same types of soy sauce; e.g. Souhtern Fujian cuisines often use a darker type.

                                      1. re: Jay F

                                        Not sure where the variation comes from, but fermentation process, ingredients etc. all come into play, perhaps not so conceptually different from regional wines. Also aging etc.

                                        1. re: Jay F

                                          Dark soy sauce is different from light soy sauce. It is not due to more soy. It is due to longer aging process and added caramel or molasses.

                                          Think of it like different coffee or different tea. Dark roast vs light roast. Green tea vs Black tea. It has nothing to do with putting more coffee, tea or soy.

                                          I believe limster said use a "darker" soy sauce. That I am no sure.

                                      2. re: Jay F

                                        Soy sauce is a fairly distinctive item, but a) it's often balanced with other ingredients, and b) not *all* Chinese food contains soy sauce, even though most cuisines use it in some way, shape, or form.

                                    1. re: Jay F

                                      All Chinese cuisines use soy sauce, but not all Chinese dishes use soy sauce. It is a misconception that Chinese use soy sauce for all of the dishes. Butter, sour cream, rosemary, basil are commonly used for most European cuisines, but not every dishes.

                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        Chemical is bringing this discussion back on point. IIUC, Jay F started this by implicitly suggesting that since all of the various Chinese cuisines use soy sauce, they are more alike than various western cuisines. That is simply wrong. There is a staggering diversity of Chinese cuisines, and a staggering diversity of dished within any of those larger classifications. And many dishes don't use soy sauce. All western cuisines use, say, butter, or tomatoes, or pasta, but that doesn't say anything about how same or different they are. And most other East Asian cuisines and families of cuisines (Thai, Malay, Indonesian, Philippine, Japanese, Korean, etc etc) also, while quite distinct, use soy sauce, but also not in all dishes.

                                        Bottom line: there exist many distinct cuisines in China, and the term "Chinese food" is overly broad and doesn't capture the diversity that exists.

                                        The Wikipedia article is a good starting point to better understand the variety.

                                        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_...

                                        1. re: johnb

                                          Excellent link, johnb. The various Chinese cuisines can be classified into the 4 major cuisines or the 8 major cuisines (some even call for 10 or 12). Regardless, I just thought of a story from my graduate school. A Chinese graduate student and I are/were very good friends and we often ate lunches together. He dragged me to a Vietnamese restaurant a few times in a row, and I teased him and said, "It seems you like Vietnamese foods more than Chinese foods". He then wittily replied: "Don't you think Vietnamese foods are more similar to some Chinese foods than Chinese foods to themselves".

                                          What he meant is that the distinction from various Chinese cuisines can be greater that to some foreign foods. For example, I find many Chinese Cantonese (Yua) dishes to be more similar to Vietnamese dishes than to Chinese Szechuan (Chuan) dishes -- both in term of ingredients and techniques.

                                          As for soy sauce, it is quiet wide spread in Asia. Many counties, like China, Japan, Korea, Indonesian, Vietnam, Malaysian, Philippines have some forms of soy sauce. Clearly, we won't say Chinese foods are the same as Filipino foods because they both use soy sauce. Conversely, the various Chinese cuisines cannot be said to similar because they use soy sauce.

                      2. ma=numbing, la= hot (as in peppers) This works for Sichuan dishes that are supposed to be both hot and numbing, made with Sichuan peppercorns aka prickly ash.

                        There are absolutely no guarantees, it will depend on the restaurant and their normal clientele more than anything.

                        I was in an Atlanta suburb once at a restaurant touted as Sichuan. I ordered a hot and numbing dish from a special Chinese menu written in English, Chinese, and Korean (!). Despite asking for the dish to be very numbing and receiving REPEATED "you no like" from the waiter, the MANAGER came over to the table insisting I will not like the dish. They finally agreed to serve it to me. The waiter brought it out again warning me about how spicy hot the dish was and to be very, very careful. Damn if it wasn't the mildest thing I've ever had. Plus it was supposed to be dry-fried and it came with a thick sauce.

                        However, the phrase "ja ma" should work for Sichuan or fei chang la (pronounced fay chon la) 非常辣 should work even if it is not Sichuan. 很辣 is 'hun-n la' also very spicy. I am no expert, so I don't know which is the best way to express it.

                        Print up the Chinese characters and show them.

                        In Thai:

                        มาก pronounced "maah" meaning very much and เผ็ด pronounced "het" spicy or tasting of peppers.

                        I always travel now with my Chowhound passport, a relic of the old days. Perhaps you could find one on e-bay....

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Steve

                          Ha. That's funny. Are these people afraid of lawsuits? Can't really say I blame 'em, I spose.

                          1. re: Steve

                            I'm all for people learning Chinese, Thai, etc. but one or two words is not going to convince anyone. The server knows what "very spicy" means in English, you don't have to show them a print-out that says "very spicy" in Chinese characters. If they don't want to give it to you (for whatever reason), they're not going to give it to you.

                            Maybe a print-out that says "not spicy = not paying" would be more effective. Then turn it over and it says "will pay extra for extra spicy". It doesn't have to be a silver bullet, as long as you shoot it where it hurts…

                            1. re: DeppityDawg

                              dep, you cracked me up with "not spicy = not paying."

                          2. I think you're all being a bit wussy about this. I say forget the little cards and all that. Language is not the problem. Order the dish the way you want it, being nice about it but very clear. As noted above, if you're in a Sichuan place, (or even if not), MA LA should help, though it shouldn't be necessary -- they know what you want, they just think you don't really know what you're doing and will end up rejecting the dish at their expense -- they've been burned in the past, and you are suffering from their stereotyping. It is an expectations issue, not a language issue.

                            It might help to tell the waiter you've been looking for really good spicy Chinese food, have been disappointed at other places, and are hoping this place will do the right thing, and you will be a good customer in the future if they do.

                            When the food comes out, if it doesn't match what you ordered, politely call the waiter over, hand back the dish(s), and ask him/her to have the chef try again and this time do it the way you asked. Be polite but firm.

                            Of course if this request is met with refusal, get up and leave. Whether you pay depends on you and whether you expect ever to return.

                            Hopefully the next time it comes out it will be what you wanted. If not, you can repeat if you wish, but in those circumstances I would certainly insist that the chef start from scratch (on the first go-around he will probably have simply dumped the old dish in the wok and added some heat).

                            That said, if you have to go through anything like this, you are probably in the wrong restaurant to begin with. Do your Chowhound research and look elsewhere. Most every city by now has at least one or two Chinese restaurants that understand there are Caucasians who like the real thing, aren't going to send it back because they didn't understand it, and want them as customers. Find one of those and you'll be much happier.

                            1. My friend who lives for Chinese food and Chinatown NYC would ask for extra spicy. He would say "not for lo fan" (I guess that meant non Chinese) and grab his long red beard saying the spices made the beard red. The restaurants got to know him and he got his extra spicy dishes.

                              1. You could say or print out the following:

                                我可以吃超辣 (I can eat super spicy)

                                and

                                朝天椒是我的中文名字 (Heaven Facing Pepper is my Chinese name!)

                                and show the waitstaff the Chinese characters.

                                8 Replies
                                1. re: K K

                                  Fantastic! But I think if someone show them the second phrase, they won't be able to order because the wait staff would be laughing their heads off!

                                  1. re: K K

                                    ROFL! I am printing this and using it just for fun!

                                    1. re: K K

                                      How do you pronounce 我可以吃超辣 ?

                                      1. re: CindyJ

                                        FYI, Online Chinese pronunciation tool:

                                        http://www.chinese-tools.com/tools/di...

                                        You will probably have to enter one character at a time, left to right, then click on the 'speaker' icon next to the result to hear the pronunciation.

                                        Online Thai language:

                                        http://www.thai-language.com/

                                        Bon Apetit.

                                        1. re: Steve

                                          In Mandarin, a character-by-character pronunciation would not work in this case. The first three characters are all technically third tones. However, when you string them together like that, the first two characters would be pronounced with a second tone. Only the third one would be pronounced with a third tone.

                                          It would be better just to print it out and show it to the restaurant staff.

                                        2. re: CindyJ

                                          CindyJ -

                                          我可以吃超辣? = Wǒ kě yǐ chī chāo là ?

                                          This says: Can I eat spicy hot?

                                          Or do you want to say this:

                                          I can eat hot food. = 我會吃超辣的. The pinyin is: Wǒ kě yǐ chī chāo là de

                                          or…

                                          I am an old Sichuan hand. I have no problems eating spicy food!

                                          我是老四川的. 我對吃麻辣的菜都沒問題!

                                          Pinyin: Wǒ shì lǎo Sìchuān de. Wǒ duì chī málà dōu méiwèntí .

                                          1. re: scoopG

                                            Well there are other ways too although yours is probably safer.

                                            Place the order, then afterwards say specifically

                                            我要吃超辣, 我不怕 (I want super spicy, I am not afraid). Or maybe replace "I am not afraid" with "I won't sue if my guts are shat out when I get home".

                                            or a more blunt direct approach:

                                            你們菜單上最辣的菜對我來說是甜的! (The spiciest item on your menu, to me is sweet!) - kind of indirectly saying that their "3 chili pepper" rating is more like 3 sweet bell peppers without the seeds. My grandma had no problems commenting that the restaurant's uber spicy level was sweet (aka lame) even though the restaurant had already claimed to put on their A game...her tolerance levels were through the roof. Then proceed to ask for the super spicy.

                                            or

                                            你們菜單上最辣的菜對我來說是小兒科 (the spiciest item you have on your menu to me is child's play), then mention you want super spicy. Hopefully they won't just dunk a whole jar of their chili oil in your food, and you end up in greaseville.

                                            1. re: K K

                                              Ha ha...that last sentence might empty the chili oil jar!

                                              Your post promted me to look at my post again and I wrote one wrong pinyin!

                                              我會吃超辣的. The correct pinyin is: Wǒ huì chī chāo là de.

                                      2. Make eye contact and just be very clear. I think eye contact is important. I also think it depends on the restaurant's normal customers and whether or not they have had a lot of dishes sent back for being too spicy, etc.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Fromageball

                                          I've had pretty good success with both ma la (numbing and hot) and da la (big heat!) but insistence and sincerity together are also important. Sometimes I do reference the fact that I am white but that the chef should forget about that :-). Being a returning customer can help too but not always. Good luck in your da la quest!

                                        2. "Pet mak mak" should help in Thai places. I would think if you explain that you want the spice level that is used for chinese, thai, etc people should do the trick. Becoming a regular is very important, and once a family gets to know you, they may even make up some dishes that are not on the menu for you to give a try.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: alliegator

                                            I have had success ordering off-menu as well as from a separate Thai language menu. I don't read Thai, so I get help for that. this way I am able to order dishes that are not on the regular menu. Many Thai places have a Thai-language menu that most customers do not get to see unless you ask.

                                            1. re: Steve

                                              Not a Thai reader myself, huge kudos to any westerner who has had the patience to learn. Not a lot of Thai in my immediate area, but I'm lucky that one of the places is exceptional! That's one of things I love most about Thai people, the willingness to share anything they have, food-wise.

                                          2. I've never had a problem getting heat in a Thai restaurant when asking for Thai hot. I've never been served anything remotely hot in a Chinese restaurant. Even when telling them I can eat the heat.

                                            I had a neighbor from Laos. One year I was invited to his daughter's birthday party. She was 2 and we never did see her, but it was a super drunk fest with lots of great food. One of my favorites was grilled and sliced steak that was wrapped around a small ball of rice and dipped into a spicy sauce. One of the guests saw me going for the dipping sauce and grabbed my arm to stop me. "No No, very hot". I took out a Thai chile that I had in my shirt pocket and ate it. "Ohhhh, OK, you crazy". I offered him one and he declined.

                                            We had a great time drinking beers and brandy, and eating delicious food.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: chileheadmike

                                              I had a similar experience at a business lunch a few years ago in Taipei. A variety of small dishes were laid out on the table to start, one of which was quite simple, just tiny (1" long) whole dried fishes and sliced green hot chilies in vinegar. I reached my chopsticks towards it and everyone at the table jumped up to try to stop me, telling me it was too hot for a Westerner. It was delicious, and I gained a bit of face with my Taiwanese colleagues that day.

                                              1. re: chileheadmike

                                                That'll show 'em. Have chile, will travel.

                                              2. Besides the good advice already given, become a regular. They need to get to know you to know it shouildn't be dumbed down. The staff at our favorite Szechuan place seems somewhat bemused and proud that we order the spicy stuff, and they don't try to warn us about it anymore. My favorite incident was when an older gentleman (a busboy) delivered a beloved dish called Swimming Fire Fish (kind of a variation on "boiled fish in water"--the fish + accoutrements in red oily chile broth). He set it down and started cracking up. "ha ha ha, the white people like spicy food, ha ha ha, American like spicy." I guess not too many others order that.

                                                1. Even at an Asian restaurant I go to quite often, where the owner and servers know my preferences for REAL heat in a dish, the food is rarely prepared with any discernable spice. Maybe the chef-of-the-moment doesn't believe my request -- I don't know for sure. But, along with the food I ordered, the server invariably brings out a small side dish with a chili oil mixture so that I can add heat to my liking.

                                                  9 Replies
                                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                                    too bad, because that is never the same -- as i'm sure you know anyway

                                                    what is their issue? i'd ask the manager.

                                                    1. re: alkapal

                                                      This is a small restaurant that is never as busy as it should be, given the quality of the food they serve (but that's a whole OTHER issue). My hunch is that there's a high rate of turnover in the kitchen, and whoever is cooking that day adds heat only to the degree that wouldn't offend the palate of someone who orders a dish spicy but doesn't really mean SPICY. But ya know -- I'm going to ask the server next time I'm there, why I just can't get my food spiced to my satisfaction.

                                                    2. re: CindyJ

                                                      > the server invariably brings out a small side dish with a chili oil mixture so that I can add heat to my liking.

                                                      I'm usually told I can add more pepper sauce myself. The problem with that is it is difficult to get it evenly distributed throughout the dish unless you just take a little with each forkful. I was led to believe that some dishes like Pad Thai are not cooked spicy and it is traditional to add sauce yourself if you want it spicy.

                                                      Is that the main problem with adding it afterwards? The even distribution?

                                                      1. re: GraydonCarter

                                                        I think you're right about Pad Thai -- or, at least that's been my experience, that the Pad Thai is served with extra spices along with the other garnishes (cilantro, lime, etc.). But with the other "spicy" dishes I might order -- it's not so much that it's a "problem" adding the heat afterward -- it's more the question as to why they don't/won't add the requested spices when they're cooking the dish.

                                                      2. re: CindyJ

                                                        This is NOT satisfactory for Thai food. There is more to the spiciness of this cuisine than just chilies. Good Thai food, depending on the dish, contains a blend of other tastes like lemongrass, shallots, fish sauce, cilantro (pak chee) garlic and ginger root among many others. Nothing disappoints me more about a Thai restaurant than asking for my food made spicy and they bring me some totally bland tasteless slop and a bottle of Sriracha sauce or even worse that Chinese spicy oil (it's not even Thai!) and tell me I can make it as spicy as I want. You should see some of the reactions I get when I hand the plate back to them and tell them I ordered it แบบไทย (Thai style) which means I want it made as if I were Thai and containing most of the flavors I listed above.

                                                        1. re: Magellan

                                                          You make a very important point. The heat should be considered in making the dish in the first place, or the other ingredients will be out of whack. You can't just add it at the table and get the same results.

                                                          1. re: Steve

                                                            True.

                                                            Which is why we have these discussions about getting the "correct" level of heat when the dish is cooked, and therein lies the conundrum about non-natives ordering native spice/heat levels and the hesitation on the part of the restaurant about fulfilling such requests.

                                                            (That doesn't take into account the demands of chileheads for heat regardless of whether a dish is supposed to be HOT HOT HOT or not.)

                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                              Don't you wish with the hundreds of Thai restaurants in Seattle there would be at least one that would have a sign on or near the entrance that says something to the effect of 'We serve authentic Thai food here. If you cannot eat spicy food, do not order a dish with a star beside it on the menu." And they don't have to ask "How spicy do you want it?" They just prepare it as they would in Thailand. This , of course , could not be done in a small community or neighborhood as it would keep away too many customers, but in a large city with a significant Thai food presence an a lot of Thai foodies like Seattle I believe it would be a hit, especially in the more densely populated Belltown, U -district or the like neighborhoods. Don't quote me on this but I think I remember seeing something like this sign at the original Thai Curry Simple location in the ID. I was disappointed to find out that except on Saturday mornings when they prepare a special "thai expat" menu the food isn't really spicy at all.
                                                              Probably the most angry/lied to I've ever felt regarding a Thai restaurant was about 3 years ago when May Thai in Walingford opened up. They had a new website (now changed) that went to great lengths to say how all the other Thai restaurants in Seattle are Westernized and how theirs is much better because the food is "just like" you get in Bangkok. I was ecstatic and went right away. I ordered a steamed fish entree asking for it to be prepared "neung manoaw" (หนึ่งมะนาว) or steamed in water infused with lime. The Thai-American waitperson obviously had no idea what I was talking about. This was a really bad sign as EVERYONE in Bangkok knows this method of cooking fish. When it came it was not a whole fish steaming and boiling in a fish shaped steamer over a sterno fire, no it was two pieces of fish fillet beautifully presented overlapping one another with a squiggly line of sauce on the plate and a stem of some sort of very non-Thai greenery laid across the top. Now while I was quite sure this would have delighted the diner who expected something elegantly presented from a recent grad of the Culinary Arts program at the Seattle Art Institute it really pissed me off due to the flat out lies that were printed on their website. Not only did this place not serve food anything like you'd get in Bangkok it was the MOST westernized Thai restaurant I'd ever been to anywhere. The decor was beautiful and the service better than most Thai places but it was a far cry from anything authentic. What should have given it away immediately was that it originally had a beautiful large Buddha image out in front. It was quickly taken down as some local Thais found using this religious icon as a decoration extremely disrespectful. It would be like opening an Italian restaurant in Bangkok and using a giant crucifix out in front as an advertisement gimmick. Needless to say I never went back nor will I ever.

                                                              1. re: Magellan

                                                                Thanks for your post. I can identify wholeheartedly.

                                                        2. We get burn off the skin on the roof of your mouth hot at our favorite Indian/Thai/Hakka Chinese place by asking for "Indian hot" as the owners told us to, and pretty darned hot by ordering "911."
                                                          :-)

                                                          1. While you are ordering, fill a teaspoon with Sriracha or whatever hot sauce they have on the table, lick it clean, and say "oh by the way, could you bring some really hot sauce out with that hot dish?--this stuff is awfully mild....."

                                                            10 Replies
                                                            1. re: NVJims

                                                              This is actually pretty funny because Sriracha, for all of its wonders, is anything but "hot" -- it's really more salty than anything else.

                                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                What's odd is I really do think Sriracha is very spicy compared to most of the sauces i can buy at the regular grocer. It could be the brand I currently have , but it is def on the hottest sauces (within reason) I ever ate.

                                                                1. re: Augie6

                                                                  And this is exactly why non-Chinese clientele usually get the "kid glove" treatment when it comes to spicy dishes.

                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                    I went to my oriental market last night and thought of your statement on sirarcha. I must correct myself and now fully agree wtih you on Srirahca...I was not purchasing Siracha but a concentrated peper paste (thus the hottness) ... The bottles looked Identical , along the same texture and color.

                                                                    1. re: Augie6

                                                                      Pepper "heat" is different from chili "heat". Are we even comparing the same things?

                                                                      1. re: huiray

                                                                        I always assumed a chili to be a type of pepper so I use the terms interchangeable ... We are on same page even if my language is incorrect.. We all know what happens with assumeing.

                                                                        The Rooster one seems to be the "name brand " in my area.. THis oriental market has some uncommon brands bottles (at least in my neck of the woods)

                                                                        1. re: Augie6

                                                                          Sorry for not responding till now...

                                                                          Actually, what I thought you meant when you said "peper paste" was a paste made with peppercorns - like black pepper(corns) or white pepper(corns) - i.e. the fruit of Piper nigrum etc. What you use "interchangeably" vis-a-vis "chili" and "pepper" refers to the fruits of Capsicum sp.

                                                                      2. re: Augie6

                                                                        Olek Sambaal? (sp?) I believe it's got that Sriracha rooster on the bottle.

                                                                  2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                    Agreed, Sriracha sauce is mostly tomato sauce and garlic. Very little chili.

                                                                    1. re: Magellan

                                                                      There is some in it, though. But - I am one of those who have never understood why so many folks adore the stuff, including many (Western) chefs. :::scratchinghead:::

                                                                2. Grab the waiter. Go to the nearest dinner table. Scoop up some chili pepper sauce directly into your mouth and swallow it. Then proceed to order.

                                                                  1. I usually have problems getting dishes hot enough, even when I say "thai hot" or its equivalent.

                                                                    I think it also depends on where you are. In Florida, I couldn't get anything above mild no matter what I said, even when I demanded the dish be redone.

                                                                    In California the Szechuan and Thai joints generally made it hot the first time, if you asked for "Thai hot" or "Chinese hot".

                                                                    2 Replies
                                                                    1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                      But are you doing it in a Cantonese restaurant or a Szechuanese restaurant - in Florida (or elsewhere)? Few regional cuisines from China have fiery-hot dishes as a given.

                                                                      1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                        Come on aynrandgirl, starting a sentence with "In California.....the joints generally....etc. etc etc.... is so stereotypical it's almost funny. I've spent many years in California and ate at a hell of a lot of Thai restaurants there and outside of perhaps Thaitown in Hollywood the majority of Thai restaurants there suck just as bad as anywhere else in the US. The worst are the pretentious ones with the luxurious decor and high prices but food that bears no resemblance to the Thai food you would get in the same type of place in Thailand.
                                                                        Also, lots of "Thai' places run by Chinese and Laotians too, They heard that money was to be made in the "Thai" restaurant business so Voila! they become Thai overnight.

                                                                      2. Are you sure that a) the dishes you're ordering are spicy and that b) other people in the restaurant are getting spicier food? Are you going to a restaurant that caters mostly to non-Chinese? It's possible that that's just how the restaurant makes food. Sichuan cuisine is, of course, noted for its heat, but not all dishes are spicy, not all Sichuan restaurants are owned by Sichuanese (even if you're in a place that calls itself a Sichuan or Hunan restaurant, and features dishes from that region, the chef and / or waiter may be from Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, etc.), and levels of heat vary between different regions in Sichuan. So it's always possible that you're not getting "whited". Also, sometimes it's just kind of up to the mood of the chef, or the exact spiciness of whatever peppers they're using on that day. I've tried to give up taking it too personally if the food doesn't end up being as spicy as I'd like.

                                                                        I have to agree with the posters above that it's probably not a language issue, so you should probably just say "I want it really, really, really spicy" in English. If you can speak a little Mandarin, asking for it spicy in Chinese may help a little with getting spicier food; if you can't, I strongly recommend reading how to properly pronounce pinyin before trying any of this on actual waiters -- pinyin is a consistent system of writing Chinese words in roman script, but it is not pronounced phonetically as it would sound in English. You can say 大辣(dà là (lit. big spicy)) or 重辣 (zhòng là (ultimate spicy)) or 我不怕辣 (wǒ bú pà là (I'm not afraid of spicy)), but if you say it wrong, you may be misunderstood or just annoy the waiter. Also, even if you say zhòng correctly, in the fourth tone instead of the first (zhōng là, which would mean medium spicy instead of ultimate spicy), if you're not Chinese, the waiter may think you mixed up your tones, and meant medium. Mǎlà is the right expression for the numbing-spicy combination of Sichuan peppercorn and dried red chilies, but I usually just hear people order in terms of spice level; I guess you could ask for extra huājiāo (Sichuan peppercorn) if you want it extra numbing.

                                                                        But probably, going back to the same restaurant and getting to know the staff will be your best bet at getting really authentic or spicy food. And make sure that the dish you're ordering is supposed to be spicy in the first place.

                                                                        Along the lines of some of the other suggestions here, but more practical: if it's a dish that features chili oil (hong you chaoshou, dan dan mian, etc.), you can also try asking for some chili oil paste (là yóu / làyóujiàng). Make sure the staff is watching as you empty half of the container of red oil over your food, then spoon the flakes over your food. Eat your food without crying or turning red, and not only will the staff be impressed, but so will I. And I'll bet that next time, they'll remember that you like spicy food.

                                                                        [edit - I noticed you mentioned Super Wok in Cary, NC in another thread -- notice that the chef there, like many Chinese restaurant owners on the east coast and through parts of the south, is from Fuzhou, in Fujian province. I have had spicy food in parts of Fujian (spicy in a different way, using a lot of local green peppers with a kind of smoky and spicy flavor), but overall, Fujian cuisine tends to be a bit more towards sweet and a bit less towards spicy. So, even if they can prepare authentic Sichuan dishes, it's very possible that "how they would make the dish for themself" legitimately is not that spicy. While some people look down on Fujianese cuisine, you might try asking for some of the specialties of their native region the next time you visit.]

                                                                        20 Replies
                                                                        1. re: will47

                                                                          " Eat your food without crying or turning red, and not only will the staff be impressed, but so will I"

                                                                          That shouldn't be an indicator. I've always had pretty immediate outward reactions to even mild spiciness even though I enjoy extremely hot food. People that don't know me well think I'm not able to handle it due to excessive sweating and flushed face yet I often want something hotter than what I was given.

                                                                          1. re: jgg13

                                                                            Oh so do I (that's why I'd be impressed). But crying and turning red probably won't inspire the staff to serve you spicy food again, even if you like it.

                                                                            1. re: will47

                                                                              Why wouldn't liking it be a cue to serve it again?

                                                                          2. re: will47

                                                                            "And make sure that the dish you're ordering is supposed to be spicy in the first place." I've often been tempted to ask that a dish not designated as "spicy" on the menu be prepared spicy. Why should I not do that?

                                                                            1. re: CindyJ

                                                                              Several reasons: a) dish does not use a technique where adding spice makes sense or enhances the dish example Cantonese whole steamed fish b) non-spicy dish is from cuisine which is generally non-spicy so asking for spicy won't get you truly spicy see Cantonese-style mapo tofu vs Sichuan c) it's no longer the dish on the menu if spicy, though this may not matter to you. These comments are in reference to Chinese cooking.

                                                                              1. re: jadec

                                                                                Not to mention that if part of the challenge is convincing them that you want the dish prepared in a truly authentic fashion that displaying complete ignorance about how said dish is actually intended to be prepared probably won't help.

                                                                              2. re: CindyJ

                                                                                You can, but you run the risk of changing the essential character of the dish, or masking subtle flavors with heat. A chef may legitimately be reluctant to do that to something (s)he considers a perfectly-crafted, well balanced dish.

                                                                                1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                  Many dishes are designed to have certain characteristics and taste profiles that do not include fiery heat. A lot of Cantonese dishes, for example, would fall into this category. You can demand that boatloads of szechuan peppercorns and fistfuls of chilies or spoonfuls galore of hot chili paste be added to a dish of whole grouper steamed with julienned scallions and ginger, for example, and if the restaurant obliges you will get what you want but you are no longer eating what the dish was supposed to be nor would you be tasting the delicate nature of the fish in harmony with its intended original flavorings (and it would also be a waste of money).

                                                                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                    "And make sure that the dish you're ordering is supposed to be spicy in the first place." I've often been tempted to ask that a dish not designated as "spicy" on the menu be prepared spicy. Why should I not do that?
                                                                                    __________________________________

                                                                                    CindyJ,

                                                                                    Let me ask your question in another way: "Why *would* you do that?"

                                                                                    Others replying to your question have already pretty much covered the basics, but think about it.

                                                                                    Would you ever go to an Italian restaurant and ask that the linguine with clams be made "extra spicy"? Or the spaghetti bolognese made extra spicy?

                                                                                    Or order the chopped salad with "extra spicy" sauce? How about that BLT? Maybe ask the server to dunk the sandwich in some ghost chili pepper sauce before plating it?

                                                                                    Or order the chocolate cake "extra spicy"?

                                                                                    It would just be weird, right?

                                                                                    Same here.

                                                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                      It's only weird if you don't like really hot dishes. I'd ask for extra spicy bolognese, but not as such. You're not likely to find chilis in an italian joint, so I'd ask for some raw garlic instead. Prime rib? Punt on the mild creamy horseradish and ask for the hot stuff. If there was some reason to believe said sandwich joint had ghost pepper sauce (Firehouse Subs probably does), I'd ask for it.

                                                                                      You can't order cakes spicy because they're prepared in advance. Still, I know people who like chilis and chocolate.

                                                                                      1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                        My personal opinion, but I think folks who pride themselves on their chili-dom-hood miss out on a great deal of subtlety in all sorts of cuisines.

                                                                                        1. re: huiray

                                                                                          What other chiliheads experience I can't say, but subtlety is wasted on me. I can't taste it. Hit me over the head with flavor (not necessarily heat, but I do like heat) or don't bother.

                                                                                          1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                            As someone who adores spicy food and bold flavors, I do think anyone reading this should be vigilant not to develop crutches - whether it is needing mayo slathered over, cheese melted on top of, ketchup drenched in, or hot peppers mixed with all sorts of things. For you perhaps it is too late, but for others I would caution against the practice of ordering foods spicy if they are not meant to be eaten that way. You seem happy enough with your limitation, but it is a limitation all the same.

                                                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                                                              Yes, it can become a horrible addiction. My husband will dump soy sauce on an authentic risotto because he insists on dumping it into all rice dishes. Shudder.

                                                                                        2. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                          Doesn't, like, every Italian restaurant in America have the "crushed red pepper flakes" that were many of ours' first encounter with "chile heat"? I truly mean that unironically, as an only vaguely informed Northeasterner!

                                                                                          1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                            You have a right to like things spicy, but you can't expect everyone to make the food that way automatically--especially if your proclivity is unexpected and unusual (in an Italian restaurant, or a sandwich shop, or some other usually non-spicy place). Maybe, it is best for you to make your extra spicy stuff at home.

                                                                                          2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                            Why would I do that...? Well, I'd do it (maybe) if I thought the dish would be enhanced by it. I totally see your point regarding overpowering certain dishes with spice -- your steamed fish example is a good one. But let's take a basic chicken/vegetable stir fry as an example. I'm not an expert on Chinese sauces, but let's say the sauce had a combination of hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, maybe a small amount of sesame oil, -- along those lines. To my way of thinking, such a dish could certainly tolerate some heat and maybe even be enhanced by it.

                                                                                            As to your question, "Would you ever go to an Italian restaurant and ask that the linguine with clams be made "extra spicy"? Or the spaghetti bolognese made extra spicy?" Well, I certainly WOULD, and often HAVE asked for the linguini with clams to be made with extra garlic. And those dried crushed peppers the server brings along with the pasta bolognese permits and even encourages me to add heat to the dish that the chef didn't, probably because he/she is catering to "average" taste preferences.

                                                                                            Your chopped salad, BLT and chocolate cake examples are somewhat far-fetched for me, but there might be some people whose taste preferences run in those directions. (You want hot SALSA on those eggs?????????) And ya know, you might be on to something with your "extra spicy" chocolate cake notion. Just consider Mexican hot chocolate for a moment...

                                                                                            1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                              Who doesn't want hot sauce on their eggs?

                                                                                              1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                That may be true, but it's different for every culture. For example, in China, some people like to pour Coca-Cola into their wines because they think it improves the taste. Some Cantonese people drink warm Coca-Cola with lemon. Many Westerners would shudder at these things the same way some Chinese people may shudder if someone adds chili oil to a chicken/vegetable stir-fry.

                                                                                                1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                  I put Sriracha on chocolate ice cream.

                                                                                                  Seriously. Yes, I know. I'm weird. I don't actually like it (or hot sauce in general) on a lot of other things. But chocolate and chili are delicious.

                                                                                          3. I think much of it depends on the particular restaurant and whether they mainly cater to non-Chinese or Chinese. Also, I have NEVER received spicy food at an "American" Chinese restaurant even when the menu has the chili pepper symbols on it and asking for it spicy.

                                                                                            I frequent 3 excellent local restaurants -- an Indian restaurant which happily complies with our requests for "Indian hot" food, a Korean restaurant which has never dumbed down the food for us, and a Sichuan restaurant... The Sichuan restaurant is always full of Chinese families and while they do offer a menu of "American" Chinese selections I have never ordered any of them. We always order from the Sichuan menu and are never disappointed. The waiters always warn us that it's "very spicy" or the pork is "very fatty" or the rabbit has lots of little bones... I suppose they get their share of complaints from non-Chinese diners so it's only fair. We simply reassure them that we love their food and we will not complain, and they always accept that. One waittress is particular always remembers us, and tells us "we order like Chinese" :-) Funny story -- last time we were there, she was not our server but as she walked by our table she asked us if we had tried their house-made Chinese sausage. We were surprised because it wasn't on the printed menu, and wondered if she was going to bring us a sample. She then pointed to the specials board which was written entirely in Chinese and her voice trailed off and she scurried away... haha, we haven't even run out of things to try on the regular menu but next time we will have to ask what's on the specials board!

                                                                                            On the other hand, I've never been to a Thai restaurant around here that actually served my food spicy as requested.

                                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                                            1. re: sadiefox

                                                                                              I think most Chinese restos in the US are still rooted in the 1950s when the American palate was attuned to milder cuisine. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but if you're a chilehead (or even approximate one), you're unlikely to get your heat fix at the local Great Wall or Golden China.

                                                                                            2. I have worked in a Chinese restaurant. The unfortunate truth is that most white people will send back a dish for being too spicy, even when they ask for spicy. So, some (most) restaurant owners are just hesitant. A likely poor pronunciation, but heartfelt attempt, of Mandarin/Cantonese will be appreciated and met with flattery but not bring you the spice you want.

                                                                                              I haven't had this issue in restaurants- I simply say, look, I want real Chinese hot spice, what you would eat in China, and I'll pay for it if I can't eat it anyways (never happens, but reassures).

                                                                                              Of course, the important key to this is to go to a real Chinese restaurant and NOT the Americanized ones. If the menu is not given in Chinese, if there is no live seafood waiting, if there are no circled tables for 8 or more, no separate party dining rooms, then I stay away. You can't go to Pizza Hut and talk your way into an authentic margherita pizza, so likewise...

                                                                                              1. In the Chinese, Indian, Mexican, and Thai places, we explain that we aren't local (Princeton has a very bland palate) and actually want the food spicy, with some extra, raw chiles on the side. That generally works, though there are still plenty of arguments regarding how we wouldn't actually like it spicy.

                                                                                                25 Replies
                                                                                                1. re: Caralien

                                                                                                  Somebody telling me what I "actually like" is insulting me.

                                                                                                  1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                    A lot of servers are rude; for some it's cultural, others are asses.

                                                                                                    I've noticed that many places will serve one set of food to the native speakers, another to everyone else. If the food is really good, I might overlook the attitude. That said, "spicy" here wouldn't have raised my daughter's eyebrow as a newborn. It's reasonable that many people don't actually like spicy food, so places stopped catering that style to the non-native speakers who regularly sent food back.

                                                                                                    Honestly--I read glowing reviews of the blandest food in town on a regular basis; people here like bland (and rude, obnoxious staff; it's interesting).

                                                                                                    So it is rude, but understandable.

                                                                                                    1. re: Caralien

                                                                                                      Is Kalluri (sp?) Corner still there? It used to be a marvelous Indian resto in Princeton, but by the time we left in 2003 their food had become almost inedible. Karen's was also a very good Chinese place. Neither though--I freely acknowledge--was particularly spicy. As you say, rather on the bland side.

                                                                                                      1. re: Caralien

                                                                                                        >>>I've noticed that many places will serve one set of food to the native speakers, another to everyone else. <<<

                                                                                                        There are SO many Asian restaurants that have separate menus printed in Chinese that list dishes not available on the English menu. What's up with that? Is it an assumption that those dishes would not appeal to a Western palate? In a local Chinese restaurant, I recently asked about a dish that used to be on the menu but was no longer there. I was told they still offered it, but now it was only on the Chinese menu. It wasn't even an "exotic" kind of a dish -- it was honey roasted pork.

                                                                                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                          Wouldn't it just be chinese restaurants that have a separate menu printed in chinese?

                                                                                                          1. re: jgg13

                                                                                                            Indeed. I somehow think it would be very rare for a restaurant serving Keralan food, for example, to have a menu printed in Chinese. :-)
                                                                                                            (Even if Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India)

                                                                                                            1. re: jgg13

                                                                                                              :D After the global takeover there will be Chinese-only menus in all restaurants. You'll see.

                                                                                                              I don't think there's a single explanation. In some cases, the Chinese menu describes banquet-style set meals that are targeted mainly at Chinese groups. Or the items on the Chinese menu were added later, or they're specials that change all the time, and it's easier to produce a Chinese-only menu and not bother with translating. And if they don't want to bother with printing, their Chinese handwriting is probably prettier than their English handwriting.

                                                                                                              And finally, there probably are some dishes that they just don't think any non-Chinese people would want. But it's not like they are reserved for Chinese customers. If you manage to order it, they'll bring it to you. (As far as I know.)

                                                                                                              1. re: jgg13

                                                                                                                Okay, okay -- so you got me on the semantics!

                                                                                                              2. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                                >>>>>>Is it an assumption that those dishes would not appeal to a Western palate?<<<<<<<<

                                                                                                                yes.

                                                                                                                and i think it is a pretty wise "GENERAL" assumption for restaurant owners.

                                                                                                                i like spicy, but i imagine that i will not fit into the "mega-spicy-craving" group. that said, i'm an outlier in my family, so that is another level removed; this means that most folks in my family -- and i'm talking the ones that profess loving thai food, e.g., -- don't even have a clue about what "thai spicy" means.

                                                                                                                i've got my little happy space, though; i know my local thai (and our chinese) --and i think they know me -- and i know that when i tell them "spicy and well done," i'm happy with what i'll get. i still add extra chili vinegar, even when i'm chompin' on the chili segments, if i got them. if my local places didn't give me the requested heat (for authentically spicy hot dishes), i'd find another place or have a serious heart-to-heart with their management.

                                                                                                                1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                  But why not let the customer decide which of the restaurant's offerings are appealing, and which are not? When I learned the the honey roasted pork, which used to be on the "regular" menu was now only on the Chinese language menu, I asked if a translated version of the Chinese menu was available. Of course, we all know the answer to that.

                                                                                                                  And FWIW, I really am NOT a difficult restaurant customer; I just thought that if there was that one dish which I've enjoyed on that menu, there surely must be others.

                                                                                                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                                    cindy, i don't understand how your response is a "reply" to my post. is it intended to reply to some point that i made?

                                                                                                                    1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                      Okay alkapal... I figured it out. I asked, "Is it an assumption that those dishes would not appeal to a Western palate?"

                                                                                                                      You replied, "yes.

                                                                                                                      and i think it is a pretty wise "GENERAL" assumption for restaurant owners."

                                                                                                                      To which I responded, "But why not let the customer decide which of the restaurant's offerings are appealing, and which are not?"

                                                                                                                      ...which prompted your query about my "reply."

                                                                                                                      Am I missing something?

                                                                                                                      1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                                        my point was in essence that the chinese menus usually have offal, etc., and i think it is generally true that most westerners don't order "intestine" and the like. a lot depends on the restaurant owners' assumptions about western tastes, obviously. they can be off-base at times. your honey roasted pig is odd to be only on the chinese menu, for sure.

                                                                                                                        but all of this is just hypothetical, anyway, to me. you have a problem with your place, and i guess you'll figure a workaround to get the kinds of food you want at the spice level you want. more power to ya, girlfriend. i'm all for that! some of my favorite dishes at our local szechuan place i learned about on chowhound -- and those are the specials written in chinese on the wall menu (not the menu handed out). (hong kong palace in falls church, virginia).

                                                                                                                        1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                          It's funny you should mention that some of your favorite dishes at your local Szechuan place came from the specials on the Chinese language menu, and that you learned about them here on CH, and not from the restaurant. I had exactly the same experience at a Szechuan place here in southeastern PA -- from hounds singing the praises of dishes that only appeared on the Chinese menu. Go figure!

                                                                                                                          1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                                            what we do now is say what kind of a dish we are looking for, e.g., shrimp or fish or lamb, etc., and ask what they have on their chinese wall menu. then we can narrow down by stir-fried, stew, type of noodle, dry-fried, with gravy, etc., very spicy, somewhat spicy.

                                                                                                                            1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                              LOLOL and usually when what happened to you happens to ME is that I figure it out after I've not only gone to the bathroom (YEOWWCH) and then wiped the resulting tears from my eyes...

                                                                                                                    2. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                                      Sounds like a project, CindyJ. Next time you go, take someone with you who reads Chinese, or ask the staff about some of the Chinese-only dishes, or get a copy of the menu and post a scan of it here and ask for translations. Consider it a chow challenge.

                                                                                                                      1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                                                                                        I might just take on that challenge -- at least the part about scanning the menu. :-)

                                                                                                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                                                                                                          I took photos of the Chinese only menus on the wall at a Taiwanese-Sichuan place here and got a friend who reads the characters well to translate. I've also began (slooowwwly) to learn a few key characters so I can identify favourite dishes since sometimes the English translation doesn't really help even if it there is one.

                                                                                                                          1. re: grayelf

                                                                                                                            There is an app made for iphone and android where you can point your phone camera at a menu, and it will translate for you. I have seen this in action, it works even with the handwriting you see posted on the wall or taped to the cash register, and it is like out of some cyborg movie. Here is the link:

                                                                                                                            http://www.pleco.com/store/home.php

                                                                                                                            Impressive Demo on You Tube:
                                                                                                                            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7VTo0...

                                                                                                                            By the way, the Chinese character with the four 'dots' on the bottom (used on the Pleco website) means 'fish.' Easily recognizable on printed Chinese menus, though sometimes for the handwritten version the four dots are simply connected as a straight line along the bottom. Pleco can recognize this common deviation as well.

                                                                                                                              1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                I don't have enough experience with Chinese OCR software, but you should be aware that many of the names on Chinese menus are poetic, such as "Eight Treasures Noodle" or something similar. Unless you have existing expertise in that particular regional cuisine, you may end up with a useless computer translation.

                                                                                                                                BTW, the four dots on the bottom of a character does necessarily mean "fish" (魚 or 鱼). In fact, it is the radical for "fire". It happens to be part of the character for fish, but it also part of many other characters as well, such as hot (熱 or 热).

                                                                                                                                  1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                                                                    Thanks for pointing that out. I didn't make it clear: it's not just the dots or line on the bottom to look for, but the entire character. You will see this often on the specials menu posted on the wall at Chinese restaurants in the US.

                                                                                                                    3. re: Caralien

                                                                                                                      i look upon the separate menu as a preemptive "You No Like."

                                                                                                                2. I suspect there's a disconnect here between things that are actually hot and what people have been told is hot. If you get a "spicy" item at a national chain it's not spicy at all. If it were, nobody would buy it. Thus too many people have been trained to think of themselves as connoisseurs of spicy food, when in fact they're nothing of the kind. Then when they get to *real* spicy food they can't handle it, because only a small minority of the population actually possesses real heat tolerance.

                                                                                                                  11 Replies
                                                                                                                  1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                                    Are you referring to "people in general" or the posters on this thread?

                                                                                                                    1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                                      Just look at how jalapenos have been wimped down for ballpark nachos. I remember, not so terribly long ago, when jalapenos packed real heat. But catering to the lowest common denominator of the market, agronomists and growers have emasculated the pepper to the point that it's now little more than an elongated green Bell. Soon enough they'll breed out the elongation for fear of causing offense or terror. ;)

                                                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                        And they don't label them in stores, so if you're buying fresh chiles you don't know what you're getting. What's next, mild habaneros?

                                                                                                                        1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                                          The local Mexican market has good jalapeños.

                                                                                                                          1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                                            Which is why I grow mine own jalapenos. During the winter, I'll buy serranos if I want some heat with jalapeno flavor.

                                                                                                                            I actually grow a chile called Aji Dulce which is a habanero type with no heat. Pretty tasty.

                                                                                                                            1. re: chileheadmike

                                                                                                                              Growing your own won't help if you get your seeds from the same jokers that watered down the jalapeno in the first place. You'll have to test your seed sources to make sure.

                                                                                                                              1. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                                                http://www.chileplants.com/

                                                                                                                                Lot's of chile plants here with every imaginable heat level.

                                                                                                                              2. re: chileheadmike

                                                                                                                                Yes, serranos are basically the same level jalapenos used to be at 10 years ago. How ironic that peppers are being wimped down simultaneous with the burgeoning of the chilehead subculture. There's a growing Capcaicin Chasm between the milquetoast masses and the Pyrex-palated one-percenters. Dear, oh dear, oh dear... ;)

                                                                                                                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                  I bought some Serranos from the store a couple of years ago and couldn't figure out why they were so wimpy. Now I know.

                                                                                                                              3. re: aynrandgirl

                                                                                                                                Wait for it.

                                                                                                                                And Ghost Peppers that are a ghost of their former selves.

                                                                                                                          2. I'm just going to add something to this thread that I know some people are going to roll their eyes over and ignore...It has been my experience that the people who are most obsessed and vocal about having "properly spicy" food are usually white westerners. That is not a scientific observation by the way, just my personal experience. I sometimes wonder whether these people have any idea what the dishes they are ordering are supposed to taste like because all they talk about is whether the dish is going to be hot enough for them and how they don't want some wimpy foreigner dish. What if the dish is not usually particularly spicy? What if most locals of that cuisine don't actually eat really hot food? Doesn't seem to matter to them. I do wonder if a lot of it is macho posturing.

                                                                                                                            Don't get me wrong, I love chillies and was raised on chilli-hot food. From a young age we would eat habaneros, often chopped up raw in salads or in barely cooked pickles and chutneys. I love chilli-hot food. But I'm not obsessed by it, I enjoy other flavours too. If I'm eating a meal and a dish isn't "hot enough" for me, I don't bitch and moan, I'll just pep the meal up with a spicy accompaniment such as pickle or chutney. Or maybe I'll just enjoy the meal for what it is. I can always have lots of chillies in my next meal...

                                                                                                                            I know this thread is about Chinese food, but one thing that amuses me is that a lot of people in the UK think that Indian food is supposed to be really hot. But if I ask a random selection of my neighbours, friends and colleagues here in India whether they like really chilli-hot food, I can guarantee that a large selection of them will say that they don't like food that is stupidly chilli-hot. Of course, their idea of what is stupidly hot might be different from a Westerners (and from other Indians - I was recently speaking with some Kashmiri guys who were moaning about how hot the food is in Delhi, for example, and I know some families where certain members of the family just do not like to eat the same kinds of food as the others because they find it too hot) but the point is that generally speaking, the flavours of an Indian meal should be balanced, not extreme in one way or another. Yes there are dishes that are supposed to have a hotter flavour than others, and of course it varies between families, but generally speaking dishes are well balanced in flavour and condiments on the table such as raw chillies, pickles and chutneys can be used to make food spicier to each diner's individual taste.

                                                                                                                            Actually Ayurvedic medicine (an ancient traditional medicine system in India) says that too much of the pungent flavour (found not just in chillies but in spices like ginger, black pepper, pippali, etc.) is harmful for the body and can lead to such ailments as pimples, hair loss, excessive anger and competitiveness, high blood pressure, and more. Funnily enough, Ayurveda also says that people who already have quite enough heat/pungency to be getting on with are often the ones who crave these pungent foods!

                                                                                                                            What is the point of this excessively blathering post? Well, I just want to remind people here to relax a bit when they go out for a meal. Don't feel personally offended if you get served a dish that you don't consider hot. Maybe it's not supposed to be! Or maybe it's not a insult to you as some kind of wimpy foreigner, but rather just a sign that your tolerance for chillies is genuinely rather high. Relax, enjoy your food as best you can (ask for some raw chillies to munch on the side) and remember that you can always make yourself something mind blowingly spicy at home for your next meal!

                                                                                                                            8 Replies
                                                                                                                            1. re: Muchlove

                                                                                                                              Great advice, thank you Muchlove!

                                                                                                                              1. re: BobB

                                                                                                                                Ha, I really hope this isn't sarcasm! It's 2.30am and I can't sleep so I'm just blathering online, as usual. Sorry my post is so long.

                                                                                                                                1. re: Muchlove

                                                                                                                                  No, no...your post was a well-said response!

                                                                                                                              2. re: Muchlove

                                                                                                                                Agreed. As I said, I worked in a Chinese restaurant - a Chinese person would never start modifying dishes off the menu. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen that done by a Chinese person, only white people asking for extra hot sauce or "no broccoli in the beef & broccoli because I am allergic....".

                                                                                                                                1. re: Muchlove

                                                                                                                                  I think the issue isn't so much that dishes aren't hot -- it's more of that dishes aren't seasoned properly.

                                                                                                                                  To use the Sichuan example that the OP brought up, I often find that many of them that I've eaten in the US or UK are seriously under spiced compared to the canonical versions. And because these dishes tend to be a balance of flavours, dramatically reducing the spice levels (be it Sichuan peppercorns or the chilli or both) messes with the overall flavour composition i.e. the low spice results in imbalance. That's also probably why many people think that Thai food is sweet -- no chilli heat to serve as the natural balance to the sweetness.

                                                                                                                                  Not all of these can be fully rectified with spices on the side - the smoky aromas from chilli and other spices in a hot wok that gets into the oil which is then used to season broths or stir fries etc is hard to replace at the table.

                                                                                                                                  It's probably not the most accurate to insist on just spiciness. There isn't just a single type of spice, with Sichuan dishes for example, often balance chilli heat with the numbing qualities of their peppercorns, and I often have to get kitchens to ramp up the peppercorns rather than the chilli. Chillis aren't used for heat, but also for flavour as well. But it's a reasonable first approximation in a number of cases, since often restaurants end up using the right level of everything else, but dropping the amount of chilli.

                                                                                                                                  Perhaps there are those who are doing it for the sake of being macho, but it's also important to realise that there are also many who are merely asking for the dish to be properly seasoned and well balanced. I just want it like the versions I ate back home.

                                                                                                                                  1. re: limster

                                                                                                                                    "Perhaps there are those who are doing it for the sake of being macho, but it's also important to realise that there are also many who are merely asking for the dish to be properly seasoned and well balanced. I just want it like the versions I ate back home."

                                                                                                                                    This is absolutely fair enough. I hope you understand that my post was just about reminding people that sometimes the issue is not improper seasoning, but rather improper expectation.

                                                                                                                                    For full disclosure, I will say that I know nothing about Sichuan food at all. And my only real reference for Thai food is what my Dad has cooked me, and since this is the same father who lovingly fed me raw habaneros as a young child (and made the shark curry that my Mum claims sent her into labour with my brother), you can bet that the chilli level was absolutely wonderful to my taste - basically, nicely sizzling!

                                                                                                                                  2. re: Muchlove

                                                                                                                                    There is a Thai Songkrat Festival in my area every year, and I can tell you the spice level there absolutely blows away anything you can get in a restaurant unless you get to know them really well and they will make you something off-menu.

                                                                                                                                    In addition, the idea that Westerners are the ones complaining makes perfect sense - because we are the victims of 'you no like' syndrome. The idea of a Thai or Chinese person getting that treatment sounds like a New Yorker cartoon.

                                                                                                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                      "In addition, the idea that Westerners are the ones complaining makes perfect sense - because we are the victims of 'you no like' syndrome"

                                                                                                                                      What I mean is it is often white westerners that seem to care about heat above all other things...whereas natives of that cuisine don't always seem so obsessed by it because they prize other flavours in the dish beyond chilli heat. As I said, it was merely a personal observation that is not rooted in any science and I am sure there will be many people who violently disagree.

                                                                                                                                  3. OK DH and I are in Chinatown (Victoria) for our honeymoon. Go to a Sichuan place. He orders spicy. Then says EXTRA spicy. REALLY REALLY HOT. I MEAN HOT!
                                                                                                                                    I'm not a spicy food fan btw.
                                                                                                                                    SO the dish arrives. SPICY! I can't eat it. It is freaking hot.
                                                                                                                                    DH tastes it, its really hot but really GOOD according to him. So he grits his teeth, bears down and eats it all. Never acknowledging that it is freaking hot. Eyes are watering throughout the meal. He's ordered it and by Gawd he's got the PARTS to eat it ALL.
                                                                                                                                    Next day? Dance of the flaming arseholes. Seriously. We can't get out of visual sight of a public washroom. He was in agony. I was too, from laughing so hard. It was literally, "hey, lets go visit....omg...I'll be back in a second...." *dash*. 24 hours of that. Hysterical, from my POV at least. Not so much from his...

                                                                                                                                    LOLOLOL....*wipes eyes*...good times...

                                                                                                                                    31 Replies
                                                                                                                                    1. re: freia

                                                                                                                                      Your hub is a good man, by gawd! Be proud.

                                                                                                                                      1. re: freia

                                                                                                                                        Heh. Does DH still do that? Or has he moderated his behavior to no longer provide material for the view that many folks who seek extravagant heat in their dishes do so to prove their PARTS?

                                                                                                                                        1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                          See, the thing is, DH loves spicy food! He's never been the kind to order things to prove he can eat them, or have "spicy food faceoffs" with friends, or eat raw habaneros while watching the game with the guys. He just loves spicy food, curries in particular, but where we used to live, he would order "super spicy please" or "really make it spicy" and be horribly disappointed.
                                                                                                                                          On our honeymoon, being in Chinatown and all, the cooking techniques and the palate that the restaurants serve for are different, and he didn't want to take this into account. So he ordered what he THOUGHT he wanted, having been a veteran of the "other menu" at the other restaurants back home. His chief complaint has always been that "it just wasn't spicy enough". So, even though I warned him LOLOL, he really really REALLY emphasized the spicy request. I told him, you know, this is a pretty "traditional" restaurant as in we were the only non-Asians in the room, so spicy might be TOOO spicy. He disagreed. And of course, once ordered, he just couldn't turn back. Especially since the server and chef were actually peering at us through the window in the door to the kitchen. So it wasn't really an order to "prove" himself, it was more of an overenthusiatic request in a restaurant that took their spice seriously.
                                                                                                                                          We both laughed and continue to laugh about it, but he's much more careful now in ordering SPICY SPICY SPICY from a menu. And he will add chili sauce to menu items that just aren't spicy enough.
                                                                                                                                          And yes, he IS a good man!
                                                                                                                                          LOLOLOL

                                                                                                                                          1. re: freia

                                                                                                                                            Ahhh. Cheers to both of you. :-)
                                                                                                                                            The server and chef peering out from the kitchen... funny.

                                                                                                                                            1. re: freia

                                                                                                                                              Heh heh. I've experienced that "peering" too. The cooks and staff are all sneaking semi-surreptitious peeks to see if that crazy white guy can really eat what they've placed before him. Sometimes I suspect they've whomped up a "We'll show him!" version of the dish in question.

                                                                                                                                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                LOL -- have that pitcher of water ready (or better, beer), even if you wanna "show them" what you're made of!

                                                                                                                                                1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                  Milk! Water will make it worse :)

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                    Rice! Eating white rice is the cure.

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                      milk!!!!!!!!????????? gyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                          Even better is what Chris Schlesinger serves at his East Coast Grill restaurant on Hotter Than Hell nights, when an unfortunate diner takes one too many bites of his Pasta from Hell: The Antidote, aka a creamsicle.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: BobB

                                                                                                                                                                Aha. And I noted that that Q and A was from all the way back in November of '75 when those sicles were in their heyday.

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                            i understand about dairy, but i am not about to get milk in a chinese place.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                              I'm not about to get milk anywhere - blech! But it will work best.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                                i'm usually not having problems with too much heat, and i like milk fine enough -- but if i'm eating hot & spicy, i like beer! ;-)). today, we had beef chow foon with x.o. sauce. didn't need the beer, but had one anyway. haha.

                                                                                                                                                                the only time i thought i was gonna lose it from the heat was several years ago when my brother in law shipped out some habanero-type peppers he had grown, and i had no CLUE how hot they were. i was mincing away and then sprinkled them over a tossed salad. WHOOO-WHOOO-WHOOOO. i was in my cousin's home, so was going through all her cookbooks like a crazy woman to see if i could find a remedy. and my fingers burned for two days, too. i learned my hot pepper lesson.

                                                                                                                                                                there is a thread somewhere on "remedies," as well. yogurt is always useful with the indian food. ;-).

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                                  I minced some habaneros once, and then like the total idiot I am, attempted to rinse my blurry contacts. The pain literally caused my knees to buckle. And my eye turned the color of a cooked lobster. Lesson learned the hard way.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                    oh gosh, perilagu khan. that is terrible!

                                                                                                                                                                    another time i had just been chopping some jalapeños, and it wasn't seeming like any big deal (and i don't recall them being particularly hot in the dish). the next morning i woke up and both of my hands were intensely tingling all over. i didn't associate it with the peppers from the prior day until the nurse on the help line walked me through some questions. i thought i had some weird neurological thing happening. LOL.

                                                                                                                                                                2. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                                  White rice works best. You are not going to find milk in a Chinese restaurant anyway.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                                    Better than milk? Do you know why?

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                                      My understanding is that milk is the best. The scientific explanation is, I think, something about little things in the milk that somehow coat the taste receptors and prevent the capsaicin from attacking, or at least blunt it.

                                                                                                                                                                      While it may be true that milk may not be readily available in Chinese restaurants (though I'll bet most would have it if you asked), ice cream should work just as well, maybe better, and they probably have that (pistachio anyone?). Actually, come to think of it the idea of a little ice cream as a side with a spicy Chinese dish sounds intriguing. Even milk haters should be OK with ice cream.

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: johnb

                                                                                                                                                                        JohnB buddy,

                                                                                                                                                                        Actually this has to do with hydrophobic and hydrophilic properties. Capsaicin is hydrophobic, so water does not was it out very well. Meanwhile, the milk protein casein has the effect of detergent on capsaicin. Just like the fact that washing your hand with soap and water is more effective than washing with your hand with just water.

                                                                                                                                                                      2. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                                        Milk does work - you are just not going to find that in a Chinese restaurant. Milk works because the casein protein in it binds to the oil which is where the spicy flavor is. Water and water-soluble items just spread spicy oil around the mouth.

                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                                                                          The Chinese restaurants in my city must be different than many of yours, as my children ALWAYS have a glass of milk with supper. This has never been a problem in a Chinese restaurant, including those with really great menus and many Chinese customers.

                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: CanadaGirl

                                                                                                                                                                            Closest thing I've ever seen to milk in a Chinese restaurant (an authentic one, anyway) is soy drink (or duo jiang).

                                                                                                                                                          2. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                            They're usually hovering with a pitcher of water--or a chemical fire extinguisher--at the ready in case my mouth bursts into flame. But I'd prefer beer.

                                                                                                                                                        2. re: freia

                                                                                                                                                          Sometimes restaurants will make things purposely too spicy just to teach a lesson to people who are too insistent on getting spicy food. This has happened to my dad before.

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: will47

                                                                                                                                                            Too spicy? Is that anything like being too handsome? Or too rich?

                                                                                                                                                    2. Based on attitude at the local Thai restaurants, telling them "I promise to still pay for the dish even if I find it to be too spicy." does make a difference in how much they'll ratchet it up for you.

                                                                                                                                                      1. Very entertaining thread! So do you think this is strictly a Caucasian thing? I'm African-American and I eat a lot of Chinese, Thai, and Indian. I don't always want extra spicy-but sometimes I do depending on the dish, and have never been denied a request or had people peering out at me from the kitchen, LOL!! That must be annoying to have a server argue back and forth with you!

                                                                                                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Luvfriedokra

                                                                                                                                                          Maybe. When I say I was it "real hot, not white-person hot", it usually comes out right.

                                                                                                                                                        2. Are you sure that they really eat the food that spicy? I get the impression that people obsessed with spiciness, craving really (or overly) spicy food, extremely hot food are Americans. Maybe, what is spicy to the Sichuanese, or Chinese, in general, is less spicy than what it is to a chilihead American? Isn't it all subjective?

                                                                                                                                                          3 Replies
                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Wawsanham

                                                                                                                                                            I think you're right about the chilehead subculture being primarily an American thing, although some of my fellow chilehead loons have been spotted in England, Germany and Australia.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                              Judging from what I have been served in restaurants where people of that ethnicity eat, what is available on foreign-language menus, ordering off-menu, and what I have eaten abroad and at local festivals at home, I would say the overall heat level is WAY down for Americans.

                                                                                                                                                              The number of Asian hotheads and the level of spiciness they crave can easily match and go beyond what we have in North America.

                                                                                                                                                              Yes, I know Asian people who don't like spice. My boss is Thai, and he can't stand spicy food. His overall interest in food is abysmal. Ugh.

                                                                                                                                                              Where Americans get themselves in trouble is insisting on hot peppers in food that is not normally served that way. Even then, this is somewhat understandable. Serious heat can salvage the icky sweet food I have come to expect at a typical Americanized Thai joint. It wasn't always that way, but the trend is clearly toward the sweet, so that I no longer enjoy the average Thai restaurants anymore.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                                Steve, I wasn't so much speaking of American tastes generically, but the tastes of the chilehead subculture. These people--and I number myself among them--crave heat that goes even beyond that found in authentic Thai, Szechuan, Indian, Trinidadian and Jamaican cuisine. I agree completely, though, that generally speaking, the American palate is daintier than the quintet I just named.

                                                                                                                                                          2. My favourite is always "no, like hot spicy you'd make it" if its authentic....But i do think i go over board as in my favourite Indian eatery told me i was burning my insides

                                                                                                                                                            2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                            1. re: buffalobobcat

                                                                                                                                                              we've discovered that food too hot keeps us from tasting it -- like an over the top vindaloo.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                                I'm a chilihead. I thoroughly enjoyed all the bih jolokia peppers I grew this year. That said, I know chiliheads who can enjoy more heat than I. I'm not trying to win any chilihead contests.

                                                                                                                                                                There is a Sichuan restaurant I like to go to, but only when I'm with my friend who is from Hong Kong. When he orders, they will make the food properly. At least, I think so. Hot dishes are hot. When I go by myself, I get a milder version. My solution for dealing with this apparent culinary discrimination is to simply always bring my friend along. :-)

                                                                                                                                                                Ultimate heat isn't what I'm after in any cuisine. I just want the dish to be prepared the way it would be for someone from the region, preferably for one who's taste is for spicy food. If a dish isn't supposed to be spicy, I don't want it spicy either. But if it is supposed to be spicy, then that is how I want it.

                                                                                                                                                                I may not be able to win a chilihead contest where the emphasis is on the purest and highest heat levels that can possibly be engineered, but I can eat and enjoy any spicy cuisine prepared the way it is served to native fire-eaters.

                                                                                                                                                            2. since there are hundreds of different types of "Chinese" food, and there are few really traditional type restaurants...order hot sauce or hot chili oil on the side and add as much as you want.

                                                                                                                                                              1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                              1. re: jdcanuck

                                                                                                                                                                Perhaps you could do that with all the ingredients... and why limit that to just Chinese restaurants?

                                                                                                                                                                Not enough wine in your boeuf bourguignon? Waiter, please bring me a tablespoon of pinot noir......

                                                                                                                                                              2. There might actually be a language barrier here. I used to ask for my curry chicken extra spicy. They seem to translate that to more spicy. I now ask for more spicy and I get it that way, but then they are my peeps. I usually don't have any problems getting the spice level that I want.

                                                                                                                                                                1. Look the server in the eye, and tell them, "this is wimp food. I want some real spice. Spice to bring tears to my eyes, and cause me to scream for my mama. Can you tell the kitchen to do that?"

                                                                                                                                                                  Actually, I never temp the kitchen (Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian) to really heat it up. They can, and usually will. If I want things "kicked up a notch," I do the requests in degrees, until things are just like I want them to be.

                                                                                                                                                                  Walk into a little hole in the wall, in Laredo, or Bangkok, and challenge them - could lead to death, or at least days in the ICU.

                                                                                                                                                                  Hunt