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How much do people associate "Asian food" with spicy? (And other stereotypes about Asian food)

Kind of inspired by but not directly related to the on-going Asian food drama in topics about of Top Chef season nine.

I'm wondering how much people associate the basic concept of "Asian food" with spicy flavors. Not whether they should or shouldn't, but how often people make that assumption about Asian food in general. Do you know people who have an expectation of heat so that if you took them to some sort of pan-Asian restaurant that Americanized its menu by not serving any spicy dishes (but still serving good food), they would be disappointed? Does your idea of Asian-influenced fusion cuisine usually involve the incorporation of something spicy like wasabi, curry powder, or siracha sauce into a dish?

I'm also interested in what other stereotypes some people have about "Asian food", for better or worse.

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  1. Which Asian are we talking about? I don't expect spiciness in Cantonese food, for instance. I think the only assumption I'd make about an Asian restaurant is that it's very likely you can get rice there.

    4 Replies
    1. re: small h

      I'm taking about people who sort of lump all Asian together as one. Do you encounter people who do that and think that Asian food is generally spicy? Or if you go with someone to a restaurant focused on food from an Asian cuisine they've never had before, do they go in with the assumption that it is mostly spicy food?

      I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who have never been to a Burmese restaurant. How many people would assume they are getting spicy food if told nothing other than the country of origin?

      1. re: FoodPopulist

        I suspect there may be different national definitions of "Asian". Where I am, in the UK, "Asian" will generally reference food from the Indian sub-continent (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, together with nearby Sri Lanka.). And, yes, folk will associate that with a heavy use of spices (although not necessarily defining "spicy" as "hot").

        Again, generally speaking, we would not lump together the various, diverse nations of east asia into a single definition but would usually refer to the cuisine by its nationality - Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian, etc. There certainly wouldnt be a single assumption that such diverse cuisines would be all regarded as "spicy" - not least because it often isnt true (and less so if defining "spicy" as "hot")

        1. re: FoodPopulist

          I don't know anyone who does that. I have heard people say they don't want Japanese - and there's another of your non-spicy Asian cuisines right there - when they mean they don't want raw fish.

          But I don't think any American says Asian when he means Chinese or Indian. We say Chinese or Indian, and I think the latter has less to do with geographical ignorance than with simple word choice. For the less common Asian cuisines - Malaysian, Korean, Vietnamese - it's much more likely we'd refer to them with the catchall term.

          As to your overall question, no, I don't believe people hear "Asian" and think "spicy." I believe they hear "Asian" and think "beef with broccoli."

          1. re: FoodPopulist

            Well there's your problem. Asia is a rather large place. Indian food is nothing like Cantonese. Cantonese doesn't share much with Szechuan. None of them share much with Japanese.

        2. I'm assuming that you are including SE Asian cuisines and far eastern Asian as well (Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Chinese). If that's a wrong assumption, oops. ;))

          I'm from the suburbs of DC and my parents and their cohorts are in their mid 60's to mid 70's. They *always* ask if the food at a restaurant in the above category is spicy before they will try it. Yes, they assume it is all spicy. And when I say "some is and some isn't" they just won't go. Even some less adventurous family of my generation who have grown up here in one of the most diverse eating areas in our country often ask "is it spicy" when I suggest some place in this category.

          Yes, I think there are a group of people who don't know about food of other cultures and feel intimidated, and they always ask me "is it spicy??"

          1. There's nothing spicy about coconut milk and lemon grass. If there is a stereotype I'm curious about, it's a general asian aversion to cheese.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Veggo

              I've read explanations such as lactose intolerance or a climate not suitable for raising the sort of animals that are used to produce milk as a reason for why Asian cuisines generally don't include dairy..

              1. re: FoodPopulist

                I am the ultimate Occidental cheese mouse and I share a large house with a woman from Taiwan and a gentleman from China. You should see how our fridges are stocked!

                1. re: Veggo

                  They didn't grow up eating cheese. In Japan, cheese is eaten aguably more than in the US - and of higher quality (but not quite Europe's).

                  1. re: royaljester

                    Cheese consumption in Japan is far lower than in the U.S., I am certain. I lived in the US until age 23, then moved to Japan, and have been here for 34 years now. In central Tokyo among higher income people there is an appreciation for top quality European cheeses, but in the countryside it is mostly processed cheese product.

            2. What the hell is "Asian food"?

              That's like saying "European food" with the only less vague term possibly being "Western Hemisphere food"

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit

                I am trying to tease out the different ways that different people would answer that question.

              2. It's never occurred to me to stereotype Asian food as spicy. Granted, I've lived in the Midwest all of my life, and in a small city in NE Ohio for about 40 years of that, so I haven't had a lot of variety or quality from which to choose. Yes, I've had some spicy Asian food, but not around here. I'm travel a lot for business, so I find opportunities to have foods I can't easily find close to home. That said, I'd love some spicy Asian food! I just won't find much of it around here...

                3 Replies
                1. re: Cheez62

                  I'm inclined to agree, unless maybe you mention "Szechuan" or "Thai", I'm not sure people around here necessarily think of Asian food ans hot. I live in the southwest US, though, and people who don' tkinow any better ALWAYS think of Mexican food as being hot.

                  1. re: Cheez62

                    Cheez, my upbringing (in the same area) was similar. The only "oriental" dishes in my parents meals were canned chop suey, and local ethnic restaurants were Cantonese and rather bland, so it wasn't until I moved as an adult (to the Chicago area, Tucson and now New England) that I discovered Thai, Szechuan, Indian and Vietnamese cuisines and the joys of spiciness. When at these establishments, I find myself ordering spicy food perhaps 2/3 of the time now.

                    1. re: DonShirer

                      Haha, I forgot about canned chop suey! Yes, my mother occasionally shared that treat with me when I was a kid. It was different, and I recall that I liked it, but spicy? Certainly not. Not very authentic either, I assume.
                      I have found some Thai at home in recent years. I liked it, but I have no way of knowing how "true" it is to Thai cuisine. I don't recall it being very spicy.
                      Beyond that, it's typical Chinese carryout stuff, or the ever-present, "the same everywhere you go" Chinese buffet.

                  2. Looks like some of you are missing the point. There are a lot of people, especially up here in Oregon, who think Asian food (though most of them say "Oriental") is all the same. They don't know Vietnamese, Burmese, Cantonese, Szechuan, Japanese, or Korean. In fact, one of the few Korean places up here calls itself Noodle Bowl, I guess they're afraid if they call themselves Korea Something then no one would come. In most of the state the "Oriental" food is that generic Chinese stuff.

                    Portland is a great food city, but the rest of the state is very weak. Japanese and Thai is evident in a few of the other cities, but that's about it. Outside of Portland there is no dim sum, no pho, no authentic Chinese of any style, and mostly bad sushi.

                    So, I'd say most people up here think Asian food is the kind of stuff you get at Panda Express like Orange Chicken, Beef with American Broccoli, Fried Rice, and even Egg Fu Yung. People will go to a Chinese restaurant and each person will order their own plate of food and eat their own plate with their one thing. I guess they haven't gotten the memo about family style.

                    I really wish I lived a bit closer to Portland.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: thirtyeyes

                      That kind of flies in the face of what I've heard about Oregon and Asian food. But mostly I heard it from my friend of Chinese descent who was born in Malaysia and moved to Oregon as a little girl.

                    2. Lumping Asian together is like lumping European, American, and Middle Eastern food together. I've eaten Asian food since the day I was born, and I could count years between when we made something spicy - and it was never Asian! Sure we knew about spicy food, maybe our neighbors were from Szechuan or someone wanted to try Thai or regional Indian.

                      It's a different topic if you're talking about a restaurant. Asian food in the US is as authentic and varied as European food - there are some good places but most are serving Americanized food.

                      I cook a lot of Japanese, and the only time I'd ever need wasabi is if I'm making sushi. By the way, unless you went to a rare sushi place or visited Japan, you probably have never tasted wasabi in your life - you probably ate flavored and dyed horseradish which is what the vast majority of "wasabi" in the US is made of. There is 0% wasabi in most "wasabi" here. Just to reiterate the point about Americanized food.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: royaljester

                        Ya, that is what gets me. In Oregon, Asian means Chinese and it is all bad.

                        1. re: thirtyeyes

                          Quite the contrary. You seem to be unaware that certain Thai dishes *require* spiciness to be authentic. I never said all Thai food needed to be spicy, however it's quite accurate to say a large portion of Thai food is spicy. Not true of most Asian cultures.

                          Go to Thailand and see if they ask you to rate how spicy you want your Papaya salad from 1 to 10. Oh wait, maybe they will if you're white. And give you a fork and knife.

                          Do you actually make or know anything about Thai food? Just curious.

                          1. re: royaljester

                            I know very little about Thai food, I know a lot about Japanese food. Most of what I know is based upon a place called Sab E Lee in San Diego, I understand it was Northern Thai which has more Laotian influences and it didn't seem to be so one dimensionally hot as a lot of the other Thai places I've been to.

                            My point was that most of the people up here think Thai is only spicy and I think it doesn't have to be. Right? Or is everything in Thailand super spicy?

                            1. re: royaljester

                              Someone also told me that Thailand was one of the Asian countries that used the fork a lot. The chopsticks was used for certain foods but not so much as in the rest of Asia. Is that wrong too?

                              1. re: thirtyeyes

                                forks and spoons are used in Thailand, and sticks for noodles. (I can use the sticks, but not very well with noodles!)

                                1. re: thirtyeyes

                                  In Thailand the spoon is used for getting food to your mouth. The fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Chop sticks are only used when eating a Chinese style noodle dish.

                          2. If we're going to talk about stereotypes, it's important to remember that chowhounders are not going to be the ones who hold them.

                            I'm with "Asian" == Americanized Chinese, which is /usually/ bad. There's the expectation that it be cheap and deliverable, that everything be little chunks of meat, battered and fried, with some sort of sauce over it, usually sweet. I don't think there is an expectation of spiciness.

                            I'm from Connecticut, where Thai / Japanese / Korean / Vietnamese / etc. foods have managed to snag a higher price point, and freed themselves from the stereotypers. If there's anything that unites (unfortunately, in my opinion) the stereotypers and nonstereotypers, it's an aversion to MSG, and an association of "asian food" / Americanized Chinese food with MSG.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: Harmy

                              It's funny, but since you mention Connecticut I think it's regional.

                              In my part of central NJ most "Asian" is actually Indian food for Indian customers. Which is great for chowhounders in the know. And it often has a bit of spice. (Meaning, my white grandparents would faint.)

                              Still, I'm not sure even here among white folks people realize that India is on the sub-continent of Asia.

                              While there is at least one very good authentic Chinese place here (if you know the manager/owner and they sign off), most 'Asian' is what everyone else notes as fake takeout dishes and 'Japanese.'

                              My complaint about ignorant perceptions of Asian food around here isn't that it is seen as 'spicy'*, but that Asian food is mostly 6 kinds of mild old raw fish rapped around cold unspiced rice, with a center of mayonnaise and horseradish with yet another chum quality fish. And, if you don't throw up in 12 hours your are incredibly cultured and adventurous.

                              *My second complaint is that people around here seem to think that good Thai food consists of flat noodles, pan fried, with some dried hot pepper flakes thrown in, in severe moderation.

                              Having vented about all of that, I know that most people in the northwest US haven't really experienced decent Italian or Ethiopian food, etc.. So, we are probably all ignorant in our own ways....

                              1. re: Tiamat

                                < Still, I'm not sure even here among white folks people realize that India is on the sub-continent of Asian (sic).>

                                We can foreclose your house
                                we can repo your car

                                We're not as dumb as you think we

                                I'm just funnin', and I'm not a banker...

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  Lol. Yes, I do type and reply too quickly for my own good.

                                  1. re: Veggo

                                    ahh we in the US aren't very good at geography.

                                    "now Burma... is that near Myanmar? and isn't Thailand somewhere around Siam?"

                                    let's make a resolution that for starters any young children among family and friends get a current (or even slightly out of date) atlas and jigsaw puzzle map in the next round of gifts.

                                    I'm tired of explaining to people that while some foods MAY be spicy, it doesn't mean all are, after receiving the look and question that imply "is it poisonous?"

                                    1. re: hill food

                                      "I'm tired of explaining to people that while some foods MAY be spicy, it doesn't mean all are, after receiving the look and question that imply "is it poisonous?""

                                      You're not alone!

                              2. As far as spicy goes, I find people tend to associate heat with Indian and Thai cooking, as both cuisines tend to contain a number of hot dishes, and are fairly widely known. They may not realize that not all dishes in that cuisine are spicy. I don't think I've met anyone who expects Asian food in general to be spicy.

                                For people who are only used to Westernized Chinese food, I find the stereotypes go more towards greasy than spicy (and loaded with MSG). Think mediocre Cantonese food.

                                In terms of assumptions in general, the biggest one I see in generalizations based on limited experience - all Indian food is violently spicy, Japanese eat raw fish at every meal, Chinese food is greasy, always served with rice, and consist solely of Cantonese cuisine.

                                1. I don't find Asian food "spicy" at all actually. I do tend to associate it with greasiness and vegetable heavy though--stir fries usually = grease in my mind.

                                  When I cook Asian food I lean toward soy sauce, teriyaki, and less toward curries. I associate Indian with curry moreso than Asian.

                                  1. When I was growing up, restaurants that billed themselves as "oriental" or "Asian" were generally Americanized Cantonese so "Asian food" triggers for me memories of somewhat greasy stir fries, sugary sauces and no heat, although I say this as an Asian who eats very spicy food on a regular basis, so maybe I'm biased.

                                    1. In reply to all the stereotyping going on:
                                      Why assume that all the geographically challenge, spice averse people are white? Are you just including euro-descent people, nordic types, do you include most Latin Americans or Middle Easterners?
                                      Though probably less than the Thais or Indians, I get the impression that the average American is more "pro-spice" than the average European, Middle Easterner, and most Latin Americans. I don't know about Asia so much, but I'd say the people of Madagascar are not very much into spicy food either. All in all, these "white people" who are portrayed as being so unable to consume spicy food are probably some where in the middle when considering the whole world.

                                      1. I wanted to wait to mention this because I was curious about what people would say, but one reason I asked this question was because I come from a Filipino family and have met Westerners who were surprised that Filipino cuisine has very few spicy elements and were disappointed because of it.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: FoodPopulist

                                          when I was introduced to Filipino food I admit I was surprised. disappointed, no, not really, but definitely surprised. I guess I didn't expect the Spanish influence (don't ask me which island's tradition it was based on - this was in the SF area)

                                          1. re: hill food

                                            Filipino cuisine has its regional variations, too. Pampanguenos have more Spanish influences in their cuisine as many native chefs who served their Spanish masters during the colonial era hailed from Pampanga.

                                            The Bicolanos are probably the only ones in the Philippines which favored spicy food. For some reasons, people from the Bicol region loved "labuyo" - those tiny, ultra-spicy peppers similar to Thai "phrik kee noo", Malaysian "cili padi" or Indonesian "cabe rawit".

                                            1. re: klyeoh

                                              y'know I assumed in an archipelago of that number there had to be as many distinct methods and customs as there are dialects. (I had 2 Filipino co-workers then who thought each others lunches were disgusting and could barely communicate except in English. I learned a lot that year about cultural perceptions)