Expats experiment with China’s spicy food

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/24 18:43:40

After coming to China, some expats say their tolerance for spicy food has grown. Photo: Li Hao/GT

After coming to China, some expats say their tolerance for spicy food has grown. Photo: Li Hao/GT

When his friends say, "this is so spicy," Jonathan Kott often finds the food is not spicy enough.

The thing he enjoys most is watching the hot oily soup boiling with red chili peppers, smelling the pungent but appetizing fragrance in the steam and sweating while knowing that it is going to be a very hot, spicy treat.

Kott, an American who has been living in Chengdu, Sichuan Province for 19 years, is dubbed the "Sichuan's King of Spiciness" for being able to handle extremely spicy food.

Kott gained the nickname in 2005 when he participated in a local chili eating challenge and ate as many as 50 xiaomi chilies, one of the spiciest chili peppers used in Chinese cuisine.

"I can have spicy Sichuan hot pot every day for a whole week non-stop," he said. "The simple rule of having spicy food is that you don't have to eat the spiciest, but you have to make sure that it is the most savory and tasty." Living in Chengdu, where the local food is well known for its spiciness, Kott now owns a hot pot restaurant.

After coming to China, many expats like Kott find themselves in a land of exotic and diversified food cultures, among which they find the spicy foods both challenging and intriguing. Not everybody can beat the locals in a spicy food eating competition and their tolerance levels may vary, but they all have different spicy food stories to tell. Metropolitan spoke with several expats willing to share their experiments with spicy Chinese foods.

Jonathan Kott and his favorite Sichuan hot pot Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Kott

Jonathan Kott and his favorite Sichuan hot pot Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Kott 

Regional cuisines from several areas in China use a large amount of spicy peppers and chilies. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Regional cuisines from several areas in China use a large amount of spicy peppers and chilies. Photo: Li Hao/GT

The king of spice

Growing up in Seattle, Kott has loved spicy food since childhood, just like his parents.

However, the special type of spicy food in Sichuan opened his eyes to something new.

"I was very curious when trying Sichuanese peppercorn for the first time, and I liked the taste of mala," he said.

Mala, which literally translates to numbing and spicy, is often regarded as a regional specialty for Sichuan and Chongqing cuisines. It is often a result of using chili pepper and Sichuanese peppercorn, with the latter producing a tingling, buzzing and numbing sensation.

Raw garlic also offers a spicy and exotic sensation, which can be a little challenging for some expats, but it is easy for Kott's localized taste buds. "You must always have raw garlic in your hot pot sauce," he said.

As he is from Seattle, justly known for its craft beer culture, Kott finds that pairing a good craft beer with mala hot pot is a perfect combination of Western and Eastern specialties.

Whenever he goes back home, Kott brings hot pot sauce to share with his family and friends. He realized that some of them can handle the taste and the taste starts to grow on them.

The food is one of the biggest reasons he came to Sichuan for college and decided to stay after graduation.

"When it comes to Chengdu hot pot, you will taste more spices in the soup for a more complex combination of tastes, while Chongqing hot pot is spicier, with a strong taste of beef lard," Kott said. He is so loyal to the local taste that when he comes to Beijing, he finds the Sichuan restaurant here not so authentic.

"Some have changed the taste intentionally to better cater to local people's preferences. The water, weather, peppers and other different ingredients in the local market can also make a big difference in the taste," he explained.

Building tolerance

Daniel Balazs, 26, a Hungarian postgraduate student who has been living in China for three years, comes from a culinary culture that greatly highlights the spiciness of food. He said Hungarian food is often spicy due to the use of paprika powder.

Hungarians love spicy food, and those who can eat the spiciest are the most respected, said Balazs. "For example, when I put two drops of a local spicy sauce in my food, my dad said that I was weak because he could take three drops."

When he brought the same sauce back to China, Balazs realized he was not as good at handling the spicy food as his Chinese friends. "I could only handle two drops, but my Chinese friends could put four or five drops in easily," he said.

After coming to China, Balazs' tolerance to spicy food has gone up since he is around a lot of people who love spicy food, and he is exposed to a great variety of spicy food choices.

The spiciest thing he has ever had was a hot pot. "It was so spicy that I got the hiccups. It was so bad that I almost couldn't eat anything," he laughed.

In China, Balazs has experimented with and enjoyed several styles of spicy food such as hot and sour sauces, and the numbing taste featured in mala. "When I tried mala it made my mouth feel numb and it was so strange. I couldn't taste anything else except the numbness."

Now that he has become a fan, when a foreign newcomer to China asks for advice on what to eat, he suggests that they try the hot pot in Sichuan or Chongqing.

A sample of spices

Unlike Balazs, Matthew Rea, an American restaurant owner, finds his tolerance of spicy food is decreasing.

Rea also comes from a background where people love their food to be spicy. Rice, seafood, pork, vegetables and peppers are often the main ingredients in local foods in Louisiana, US, according to him. "In Louisiana, we have certain spicy dishes like Jambalaya but also very rich smoky dishes like gumbo. There is always hot sauce on the table to add a bit of spice to anything you like," he explained.

Compared to his family and friends back in Louisiana or his Chinese friends, Rea does not consider himself the bravest when it comes to eating spicy food. One time he tried a bit of a hot sauce with a toothpick, which was made with the Carolina Reaper, known as the world's hottest pepper, and almost threw up.

He had his spiciest experience with Chinese food when he visited Chongqing.

"I tried a spoon full of oil floating at the top of the hot pot with a few chili seeds and peppercorns in it, and immediately knew I made a mistake. It took about 10 minutes of pain before I was able to stop sneezing, sweating and having tears stream out of my eyes!"

The longer they live here, the more some expats like Rea find it difficult to generalize the taste of spicy Chinese foods, since people's preferences and local specialties vary greatly from region to region. Some dishes burn your tongue and some are spicy and sour. There is spice that makes your nose run, and another spice that makes you sweat. Sometimes the spiciness is very intense and goes away quickly, but sometimes you feel the slow burn.

Rea has travelled to many places in China, and has spent time in Chongqing and Jiangxi Province, all of which are known to use a lot of chili in their daily diet. He said the biggest differences are in the amount and species of chili used, as well as the use or lack of the numbing peppercorn.

"Some dishes you eat make you feel drunk and make your head spin. Those are great! Others seem like they are just trying to hurt you. Those are great too!" he said.

Loving the burn

Spicy foods are known for many health benefits, including Vitamin C from the chili, speeding up metabolism and longevity. The BMJ, a medical journal, published results from a study in 2015 that included half a million Chinese people, which revealed that people who had spicy food more than once a week had an overall reduced risk of death.

According to expats, spicy food often works even better for social purposes, and the hotness brings people closer.

When it comes to spicy food, Balazs' favorites are hot pot and barbecue. "I like them because my friends and I always have these foods when we have a get-together, so I am always in a good mood when I have hot pot or barbecue."

He also believes that in many cases people who love spicy food often tend to be more enthusiastic and social.

Rea's favorite spicy Chinese specialties are malatang (skewers in numbing, spicy hot soup), Sichuan-style fish heads and crawfish.

"Especially the crawfish, because the meal could last for hours on end," he said. 

The spiciness and the conversation both make the meal last longer and longer, he said. "And the alcohol does too."

Newspaper headline: A heated affair


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