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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.