We’ve all been there at the restaurant table, plastic menu in hand, apprehensively gazing up at the waitress. “I like the sound of this dish,” we say, “but how spicy is it?”
This question inspires my sympathy for all wait-staff out there. I’ve posed the question countless times myself, yet I don’t envy the poor waitress or waiter who has to respond. Customers often see their server as an omnipotent god and a professional translator of food lingo; while it is true that a good server should be able to accurately describe and recommend every menu item, you can’t blame the poor server if they stumble over this question of spiciness. “Well,” they often begin, “it depends on how spicy you like your food. I’d say most people think this is pretty spicy… but some people can handle it without tears or large glasses of milk. I can tell the kitchen to go easy on the spice?”
And, as you probably recognize, none of this commentary is real helpful – not at the fault of the server. Because how are you to know if your definition of spicy and theirs is one and the same? You of course could get into a ten-minute comparison of what you both consider “spicy,” bringing you closer on the spectrum to an understanding of the word. However, your dinner companions would get annoyed, other customers would need refills and dessert, and you’d probably end up disliking the spicy dish in question anyways.
As a sidenote, I’ve never been a big fan of what I consider spicy food. I guess this is pretty typical of Minnesotans and midwesterners in general. I’d like to say that on the spectrum between “bland” and “spicy,” I’m somewhere in the middle – with the pico de gallos, medium taco sauce from Taco Bell, and limited exposure to hot peppers. That being said, finding where this acceptable level of spiciness correlates with recipes, restaurants, and my college dining facility is not always easy. In a world in which some people will call cereal spicy and others will barely flinch at the menu item with about 10 little pepper icons next to it (indicating, “do not eat unless you have lost most of your taste buds!”), it’s a word that at its worst causes misunderstandings and runny noses. At its best, it brings people together in discussion of the flavors of their favorite cuisine.
Googling “spicy,” I came across the wikipedia page for “Piquance” – and I would like to introduce this word to our daily vocabularies with the hope that it helps us in these confounding moments of spicy confusion. Piquance refers to the spiciness of taste, rather than the simple indication of “spicy” as using spices (cinnamon and nutmeg are spices, but they don’t generally make people cry or ask “how spicy is the apple pie?) or “hot” as referring to temperature. Piquance combines the two.
Start asking your waitress, “how piquant is this dish?” and see how they react. 🙂
Interesting facts from my internet search on spice/piquance:
- Capsaicin is the chemical in spices that causes the burn you feel when something is too piquant for your taste. It stimulates our chemoreceptor nerve endings – think mucus membranes (why we blow our noses when we eat piquant food!) We drink milk to calm our agitated mouths because milk contains casein, another chemical that actually digests the capsaicin.
- The Scoville Scale measures the amount of piquance of chili peppers, specifically, how much capsaicin they have.
- Piquance is considered a sixth basic taste in Asian countries (the other five being bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami).
- The countries that produce the most spices are India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal
- The only way to build your tolerance of spicy food is… you guessed it… in the words of Nike, “just do it.” Here’s a link to how to adapt to spicy food.