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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.