I’ve never had a problem with heat. When I was about 6 or 7, my dad challenged me to drink an uncut spoonful of the red-flecked oily stuff that always sat in the tabletop condiment caddy at our local strip-mall Cantonese restaurant. (As a parent now myself, I find this dare equal parts hilarious and frightening.) While my family still laughs about the color my face turned with one drop, I just remember the dreamy buzz that came shortly after. The clear-headed, almost floaty feeling that I’ve since sought out time and time again in curries, Sichuan platters, ghost-chile salsas, and fried chicken sandwiches.
Still, I know the difference between pleasure and pain. I throw a whole roasted jalapeno on my taco but keep those tiny prik kaleang chiles far from my jungle curry (a few years back, I accidentally ate one in its entirety, which kicked off a long, torturous night and next morning.) This is why I’ve always placed myself confidently in the “medium-spicy” camp. There’s a Goldilocks threshold where spice adds balance to a dish without overwhelming it — somewhere between poblanos and ghost peppers — and it’s there where I like to make my bed.
In Los Angeles, “Thai-spicy” is a specific heat metric that gets thrown around in many of its Thai restaurants — a shorthand for the fact that certain regional Thai cooking is among the most chile-forward in the world, and that a so-called “authentic” presentation of these dishes is, frankly, fucking hot. Agreeing to eat something “Thai-spicy” in this city is akin to saying: “Please give me a dish that will induce a sweat-bead mustache robust enough to justly honor the memory of one Mr. Alex Trebek.” But the term is often misappropriated, prone to becoming an overgeneralization about Thai cooking, Thai people, and an ethnicized tolerance for heat. Ultimately, it’s a folkloric phrase and one I have never used in my personal ordering because I understand my limits.
There’s one LA Thai restaurant, however, where even the “medium” gave me something to strive for. My server there always seemed to know precisely the pleasure-pain ratio I had come in search of. I’d been to this place a few times since it opened, always dining in, and always asking that the dishes marked with a red chile on the menu be served “medium-spicy.” Even then, the food, when it arrived, pushed the boundaries of moderate, teetering on the edge of more than I could handle. But that’s exactly why I loved it. Unlike so many restaurants where the inherent sweetness of many Thai dishes can dominate, here the aggressive use of chiles brought out the nuanced architecture of Thai cooking, without leaving me in a puddle. And so I came back to this place again and again — until, that is, one fateful meal last January. It’s now referred to as the _____ Thai Food Incident, named for this well-loved restaurant that I won’t divulge here, so as to not scare off the “even mild is too spicy” people. (No, it’s not Jitlada.)
It was a rainy winter night when the craving for tom yum hit. I’ve lived in this town long enough to have absorbed an Angeleno’s particular sensitivity to wet weather and thereby could not bring myself to leave the house, so we ordered in. Over the phone, I requested all of the food my usual “medium-spicy,” which I had come to expect would deliver a stiff, satisfying punch to the palate without wrecking my insides and possibly my marriage. My husband, who was weaned on the queso-squelched flavors of 1980s Tex-Mex cooking, is probably more a natural fit for “mild,” but I’ve spent the last 15-plus years trying to push him to the dark-ish side.
Maybe it was the rain. Or something with the moon. Or perhaps all the bland, rich, holiday foods of the last few months had somehow weakened my heat-seeking life force. Whatever it was, we both played it cool at first, relishing our first few bites of curry, our first spoonfuls of broth, casually complimenting the chef while cooing about the thudding rain outside. But within about a minute, it was clear that something was very wrong.
There was no subtle buzz, no building crescendo of heat, no casual unfurling of flames on the tongue. There was just pain. Actual stinging pain. A live murder-hornet-in-my-soup sensation that I’d never experienced before, not even when I threw back a shot of hot chile oil as a first grader. It was a shuddering, tooth-vibrating jolt of pure, capsaicin force. It hurt.
My husband gave in first, making it through a few feeble bites before throwing in the towel (then rubbing it furiously over and over on his tongue while screaming). I tried to muscle through, telling myself it was a mental game — that if I imagined that it wasn’t spicy then it somehow just … wouldn’t be. I thought about ice cream and snow cones and glasses of cool, cool water, which my husband lovingly continued to refill for me as he watched me slowly dissolve. Sweat beads became waterfalls. I could feel the color of my face changing from millennial pink to Barney purple as my whole torso began to quiver. What began as me voraciously shoving heaps of rice and curry in my mouth deteriorated over the course of the next several minutes, until I found myself pathetically blotting individual grains of rice against the side of the bowl as if I could somehow squeeze the heat out with my fork.
Eventually, even I had to admit it was over. I had been bested by noodles, crushed by curry, supplanted by soup. My mouth singed, my stomach already rumbling, I pushed my plate away in shame, feeling that it was my own arrogance that had led me here. Had I ever really been a “medium-spicy” person? Or was it all a sham — had the restaurant actually been serving me their version of “mild” for years to keep my sense of self whole? I didn’t know then, and I’ve been too scared since to repeat my order and find out.
Because — despite what an entire genre of YouTube videos would have you believe — spice cannot be reduced to gimmicky tests of endurance. Too often chiles get relegated to the world of stunt eating, which misses the point that heat, like all aspects of eating, should be about what feels good to you. There’s no universal right when it comes to taste, and one’s individual heat tolerance shouldn’t be some label to wield with pride or shame. I’m not a “medium” or a “mild.” I’m just a girl, sitting in front of a pile of boat noodles, asking it not to scorch her. And that’s fine.
That night, we ultimately shoved the styrofoam containers in the refrigerator and crawled over to the couch to lick our wounds and a few cubes. And there the food sat — damp, seething, untouched in the cold dark — lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim to wander over to the fridge, memory dulled by time or hunger or THC, in search of a little something spicy.