On the variability of spice

I started this post with the original intention of simply linking my old BlogTO post about places where you can eat Singaporean-Malaysian Chinese food in the GTA. As I wrote, however, I decided to go on a different tack: I wish to explain, in greater detail, the concept of “spicy” in Asian, specifically Southeast Asian, cuisine and how it differs from how North Americans generally view this concept.

Other than thinking about sultry vixens like Megan Fox, when most people in North American think of words like “hot” or “spicy”, the predominant thing that comes to mind is a sharp searing heat (which could come gradually) that burns your tongue when eating a meal. The heat is strong, pronounced, and noticeably distinct from the other flavours in the dish. This is why, even though I proclaim to love spicy foods, I always refrain from eating spicy chicken wings, even though I heart wings in a way that no grown man really should.

Uh nope. I don’t, actually.

When I order something like “suicide wings” in the local wing joint, be it All Stars or Wild Wing, all I get is 100% burn on my tongue, with a side of tart (which makes sense considering most chillies grown in the Americas have that slight lime twang -think Frank’s Red Hot or Tabasco) before they proceed to eviscerate your tastebuds. But the heat is so overpowering that it blocks out whatever other taste there may be in the actual chicken meat. Now I can go into another rant about how a lot of North American restaurants don’t properly season/marinate their meat, but that’s very much another story.

In other words, the spice is pretty much a flat blast of heat.

This is very much UNlike Southeast Asian food. This cuisine, in contrast, tends to define “spicy” NOT in the stereotypical hot sauce fashion that is rampant in Western food, but rather in a way that is rich and complex.

Spice in Southeast Asia comes not from a straightforward addition of chilli peppers to an existing dish, but mostly from a combination of herbs, spices, and seasonings such as garlic, coriander, various kinds of chili, sugar, salt, tomato, and God knows what else. The heat is not a standalone ka-POW, but rather blended into the flavours of the dish itself.

In other words, the spice in Southeast Asian cuisine is complex and vibrant. One hot dish would have a different taste than another, the type of heat is different, and they generally work WITH the food and its seasonings, not distinctly beside (or even worse, overpower) them.

If you want a clear example of what I’m talking about, go to any wings place and order their top-level hot offering. It’s usually called “suicide”, or “homicide”, or any other slightly inappropriate term. Then go to Gourmet Malaysia on Sheppard and Brimley and try their spicy laksa.

Another example would be to go and buy a “Western” hot sauce like Frank’s Red Hot Sauce and an “Eastern” equivalent like the Indonesian Sambal ABC from your local T&T Supermarket. Take two pieces of plain white bread. Pour a bit of Frank’s Red Hot on one, and a bit of sambal on the other one.

It loves me back, I think.

Go on, I’ll wait.

(Now drink some water if you need to :P)

Feel the difference? (I sure hope so, otherwise this whole article’s been pointless)

So when people ask me why I don’t ever order any explicitly hot foods in most Western restaurants despite boasting that I love spicy foods, THAT’s why. it’s just so different. Still, there’s nothing wrong about liking one over the other. I just happen to like the Asian variety a whole lot more. I simply wanted to bring your attention to the fact that not all “hot foods” are created alike, or even remotely similar. It would be like saying that I look like the guy from the Mentalist TV show just because we’re both adult male human beings.

Then again…

In any case, here’s that BlogTO article that I originally wanted to link to. Keep in mind that Coconut Island and Villa Malaysia are no longer in business. I’m a bit sad for the first, but elated for the second. The article will explain a bit more why.

http://bit.ly/wBEniI

Gourmet Malaysia’s in there too by the way. A bit chaotic, but the food is wonderful.

Mari makan!

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