You Call that Hot? Now This is Hot

(With apologies to Crocodile Dundee)

I got a Thai curry the other night and was sorely disappointed. It tasted fine and was well cooked, but it was not hot. The spices seemed mild and pleasant, but did not even warm the tongue. I am not certain why it was marked as spicy. Thai spicy is what I turn to when I can’t get my sinuses cleared, or when I’m feeling in the need of food that takes my mind off of everything but “ow, ow, ow that’s good!”

Until the time I was born [redacted] years ago, you could draw a very neat Scoville map of the US in white shading to crimson. The northern border through the Midwest would have been white or cream, because outside of a few enclaves of Mexicans and people from Central America, and some South Asians, spicy food meant you added too much paprika or cinnamon. You know, white gravy on white potatoes with fish, or meat-n-potatoes. Not until you started to reach the BBQ Belt did pepper change from the black stuff you ground to the red stuff that came with the prefix chili. And was sprinkled on pizza. Or added in tiny bits to barbecue sauces by the daring. And then you hit Chinatowns, San Antonio and Tex-Mex food, and other enclaves where hot, spicy food was a staple. And never left those enclaves.

I grew up in the central Midwest, and Mom was considered adventurous. My Texas grandfather would ship cans of Wolf Brand (TM) chili (no beans) and packages of Wick Fowler’s Three Alarm Chili kit, and we ate the canned stuff on scrambled eggs, or in winter with cheese grated on top. Our Scandinavian neighbors, and Irish neighbors, gave the cans a wide berth. Mom also made a form of curry using the yellow stuff from Spice Island. And assured Sib and I that there were far more interesting versions in India. She’d eaten them. Oh, and once in a blue moon we’d eat Chinese at a restaurant, and I learned why you don’t eat those tiny red dried peppers. Only took once to cure me.

Around the mid 1990s, something changed. it may have had a little to do with the fad/craze for all things Southwestern, when “Santa Fe style” was all the rage. It may have been that a new, larger generation of people from Southeast Asia and South Asia had grown up in the US and established a market for real curries and spice blends. Whatever happened, I started finding much better things like various gara masalas, Thai curry blends, and more peppers than jalapeno.

And I like them. Not the ones that cause pain for hours after (although I’ve eaten a few of those, the entire serving, and endured) but the rich, nose-warming, drip-inducing curries and chilies, many from New Mexico. A grad-student friend opened my apartment fridge and started laughing.


“You are definitely from Texas.” She pointed to the five jars of different salsas. Well, you have a black bean, a very hot, a not so hot, a fruit salsa, and Pace mild to use in place of tomato in some things. That’s just normal. Like having five kinds of curry powder and gara masala in the drawer. Doesn’t everyone do that?

But I take the warning signs in Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese places seriously. Thus my disappointment the other night. Until I ate the cucumber that had been sleeping beneath some jalapeno slices. Ow. Ow. Ow.



4 thoughts on “You Call that Hot? Now This is Hot

  1. I moved from a place that was half Mexican to a place where the only option on any but the very largest grocery stores shelves is “mild” salsa. If I wanted ketchup on my tacos I’d just grab the squeeze bottle. I love food with a bite, and have learned to warn local friends to test my food with caution (although most get the idea when they see me eating pickled jalapenos as a snack, anybody who argues with me and tries to tell me those are hot, shouldn’t get within ten feet of my food). Forks may have become famous for the liquid diet of some of it’s residents, but when I lived there it had both the best Chinese and the best Mexican restaurant I have ever ate at. I’ve given up on Mandarin Chicken since moving, nobody else can get it right, and they certainly can’t make it however hot or mild the customer wants without ruining the flavor.
    Until my cousin moved, I used to be able to go visit him whenever I needed a good Asian food fix (his wife was from Laos, and while she was raised in the US, that just meant she learned to cook more types of Asian food than Laotian/thai) but while 3/4 of an hour is an acceptable drive for a tasty dinner, 8 hours is just a tad far to make regularly. I remember when they lived with my parents for a few months, I’d stop by on Friday nights and she would have two main dishes fixed, one for her and I to eat, and one for everyone else. Then she stayed with me for a couple months while they were building their house, I threatened to sabotage the construction, so it didn’t steal my cook. 🙂

  2. While much here (MN) is indeed mild to the point of disappointment, what’s available in stores does have range from truly mild peppers, through jalapenos, and habaneros, to ghost pepper salsa. Not everyone in the region is of Norse ancestry. I do recall being amused (and bemused, yes) years ago when looking at various salsas and find one brand with name like “Devil’s Fire” that had an Extra Mild version. That was a “Wait, what?” moment.

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