A Hong Kong myth debunked: we love spicy food – curry, Sichuan hotpot, jerk chicken, you name it we’re up for it
After years of avoiding fiery chilli dishes and eating spicy food ‘adapted to local tastes’, Hongkongers are embracing Scoville, Sriracha and mala, and enjoying the health benefits of tucking into some of the hottest culinary creations
The spice shaming must stop. It’s time Hong Kong comes out and admits there’s nothing wrong with liking spicy food.
For years, it’s been presumed that diners here are too timid for super hot action. Restaurants avoided featuring too many dishes on the menu with chilli pepper icons next to them. But that intolerance seems to be changing. Now, people are proclaiming loud and proud that we’re here, we’re fierce and we want to dig into flaming hot food.
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The myth was always that the Cantonese prefer clean flavours and delicate cooking, as exemplified by steamed fish and clear soups. Too much spicy food, grandmothers warned, will get you an upset stomach or ulcer. To this day, the most common customer question before ordering at Indian, Mexican and Korean restaurants is, “How hot is this dish?”
The fallacy of fiery heat being a vice is sometimes reinforced at family dim sum lunches. The uncle who liked to drink and bet on horses was usually also the one to keep asking for more chilli oil. No one else really touched that intimidating red lava, but he would lustily dip his dumplings into it and slather the oil on his meats.
When I was young, it all seemed forbidden and dangerous.
Instead I followed the straight and narrow as a spice wimp. I thought I couldn’t handle heat. I tasted candied ginger and found it too intense. Occasionally when hot sauce was dabbed on my food, I thought hot coals were being raked over my tongue.
As a result I abstained. I conservatively chose Italian over Thai, kebabs over kimchi.
My only spice transgressions were the stupid high school wasabi challenges. Admittedly, we were a bunch of immature boys flailing at manhood by way of cheap green mustard on even cheaper sushi. Honestly, we abused ourselves.
To sushi chefs everywhere, I feel shame and I am sorry.
Eventually, I overcame my reluctance and began flirting with piquant pleasures. Father, forgive me for I have capsaicin’d. I began ordering curries with the chilli symbol next to them. I tried buffalo hot wings and moved on to harder kicks like Jamaican jerk chicken. I dipped my toe (or tongue as it were) into mapo tofu, then dived into a Sichuan hotpot.
After a while, I did crave the rush of a detonation in my mouth, sometimes followed by another explosive bodily action the next day. Soon I found myself cosying up to food spicier than others could handle. This might be what a Jedi apprentice feels upon discovering the Force. Hot food to eat I had the power, Yoda.
As times change, Hong Kong has begun to indulge – and the number of restaurants serving spicy foods has increased. People are revelling in the flushed, sweaty glow of mala radiation on their lips. There are more than 50 shades of Scoville to seduce you while eating. That euphoric pain is now accepted as pleasurable and intoxicating. Sriracha sauce is so hip it hurts.
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Food researchers continue to confirm there are genuine health benefits to a diet with spicy cuisine, so instead of abstinence, we should just debunk that taboo. There’s nothing wrong with liking it hot. There is also no shame in teary eyes, runny nose and drooling saliva.
If you can stand the heat, get into these kitchens