The non-exact science of spice

Proceed with caution.
Photo: Nguyen Duong / via Flickr
Jet Tila

So you know what I hate? I hate it when a guest orders a dish at spice level five, which is our maximum level of spiciness, then sends it back saying it was too spicy. Dude, it’s five out of five meaning it’s going to be frickin’ spicy! What did you expect, that I was only teasing that day because we were kind of slow? Or sometimes you get the yahoos that want to be all hardass and order a spicy five, and then it comes back to the kitchen in the hands of a smug server who’s like, “Chef, the guest says your spicy five isn’t spicy enough and dares you to bring the pain!” I can’t decide which one chaps my hide more.

Let’s remember something when it comes to spice: We are dealing with Mother Nature here. Have you ever enjoyed a bowl of fruit, like cherries or strawberries or something? So you are gazing at your bowl of cherries, and with some knowledge and experience you know to pick the ones that are darker and heavier looking because they are sweeter. You’re not a cherry expert, but you’ve heard the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. (No, this isn’t the Porno Blog or the stripper blog; we’re talking food here.)

I’ve been doing this a long time, but I’m not a damn chili pepper whisperer. We deal primarily with Thai chilies and Serrano chilies at my restaurant. If you order spicy one to three, we will use sliced Serranos in your dish. Four to five gets only Thai chilies. If you want it even spicier, we’ll lay down some fresh Thai chilies and then finish the dish with dried Thai chili pepper flakes. Did you know that Prik ki nu or Thai chilies translates to “mouse-dropping chili?” Yes, they look like tiny little mouse shits! Well, they do in Thailand anyway. They are Mc-super sized here.

A lot of people ask, are green chilies spicier than red? This is an age-old debate and I’ve heard it answered both ways. In my personal experience, there is not much difference in color, but usually the smaller the chili pepper, the spicier it will be. It almost doesn’t make sense to try to rank the level of heat from 1-5 or 1-10. I’ve often thought just to change the scale to 1-3. 1 is mild, 2 is medium and 3 is spicy. Trying to spread the spectrum out to five is wonky, but not as wonky as trying to figure out the differences from 1 to 10. I often think ordering a 3 or a 7 is funky, and the cooks are laughing in the kitchen trying to figure out if they should add that extra chili seed to make it exactly a 7 or 8.

Heat depends on too many variables; maybe the dude or lady cooking your food is light- or heavy-handed. May they had a shitty day and are taking their frustration out on your poor, unsuspecting taste buds. Maybe they decide to make every dish a fuego just to mess with you. Or maybe the chills in this lot are just not that spicy. At the end of the day, your spicy level is a dynamic dance that we have to dance daily, not an exact science.

So let’s abandon the numbers altogether. The new Wazuzu scale will be:

A. I’m a weakling don’t hurt me.

B. I like some burn with my chow.

C. I want to feel the burn but taste the food a little.

D. I’ve been to Thailand and want my head to sweat.

E. I want it to burn going in and coming out!

Oh shit, I’m back to 1-5! Doh!


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