The hottest thing I’ve ever tasted

Posted in Society, Travel at 9:38 by RjZ

One of my best friends proofreads for a living but even she isn’t a grammar Nazi. She recognizes that a language serves the primary function of communication and that grammar and word choice must support that. When we change spellings and punctuation to suit convenience or trends or use words with meanings we’ve stretched to meet our desires, we need to be sure that we’re achieving our primary goal–being understood!

The Indonesian language is a synthesized language, developed by the Dutch to enable communication in a country comprised of 17,000 islands (6,000 or so being inhabited) with over 300 major languages and hundreds of dialects. Bahasa Indonesian (literally language Indonesia) only came into being in 1945 and it was developed from Malay with many Dutch words and much simplified grammar. It was created to be easy to learn and while less than 7% of Indonesians speak it as a mother tongue it is widely used. One of the features of Indonesian for example is that there are no irregular plurals. No child->children for example. In Indonesian plurals are made by simply repeating the word: child-child = children.

During my trip to Indonesia I would often have dinner from street vendors. Fellow travelers often shunned the street vendors claiming that the food wasn’t as clean. In one restaurant I peaked into the kitchen and wasn’t impressed by the sanitary procedures and figured that if the street vendor drops some of my food on the ground at least one of the roaming dogs would probably pick it up before he got a chance to. Plus you got to watch him stir-fry your noodles and add spices.

Being a white tourist it was challenging to get food that was prepared authentically. This was just fine for my traveling partner. If they wanted to make the food less spicy just for her, that was great. I’ve never been too afraid of a few chilies so I would have to explicitly ask each time we ordered: “make mine spicy please.”

One evening I went on my mission to gather dinner. I approached a soup vendor (why not soup? It was only 95°F with about 1000% humidity….) who was rather busy and waited my turn. He was chatting happily with one of his customers while preparing soup. He would take one of his bowls from the rack where his partner had placed them after rinsing them in a bucket of water that had been used for countless bowls already and ladle soup into it. Next he would dip a big spoon into a jar of pickled, finely cut, vegetables and chilies, lift it out, shake it off a bit to level it out and dump this in the bowl and stir it around. he topped this off with some fried noodles and handed it over, chatting the whole while, to a waiting customer.

I placed my order in carefully annunciated English “two soups, please. One plain and one spicy.” But he was still chatting and I couldn’t tell if he was listening at all. It had been a difficult to get this across to other vendors and I was tired of getting bland dishes so I repeated with a bit more assertiveness “two soups. One for tourists and one spicy.” Following that last “spicy” was a tiny pause where he looked up and finally appeared to be paying attention so to be sure I repeated “spicy” once more and he nodded. Finally, I thought, I’ve gotten through and we’ll be having our soup soon.

I watched and waited while he made more soups for his Indonesian customers. Always the same procedure. Ladle the soup, dip the spoon, shake off the excess, dip in the bowl and stir and then top off with fried noodles. He then prepared a bowl without dipping into the chili mix at all. For his next bowl he ladled as usual and dipped the spoon into the chili mix as usual but this time, there was no shaking off the excess. Into the bowl it went with a quick stir. The spoon quickly returned for a second visit to the chili mix and another unshaken heaping spoonful was dumped into the bowl. Fried noodles topped it off and, smiling, he handed over two bowls of soup pointing at one of the steaming concoctions and saying “spicy” through a toothy grin made even brighter by his dark brown skin.

I returned to the dusty step where my partner was waiting and handed her the plain soup. I knew I was in trouble before I tasted mine. After just a few spoonfuls the sweat started to drip from my forehead. As a struggled through this burning bowl of fire it threatened to become never-ending because my sweat was now pouring off my face and sometimes dripping right back into the bowl. I’d ordered the soup, so I was going to eat it! I didn’t want to have to return to the vendor sheepishly admitting that I was just like all the other tourists and couldn’t handle it! I looked ridiculous. Bathed in sweat and unable to taste anything but lava on a spoon I continued sipping until I drained the bowl while my traveling partner laughed the whole time and reminded me how tasty her soup was. Hers was a little spicy she told me, but not too much. Her toothy grin didn’t have as much contrast with her fair skin as the soup vendor but it seemed just as evil now. I wondered if I’d ever be able to taste anything again. Can capsaicin do real damage to the linings of your digestive tract if you have too much?

I’ll never know whether he was trying to teach some westerner a lesson or whether that second “spicy” was simply interpreted as “spicy-spicy” a plural and we was just accommodating my wishes but the story still reminds me to speak carefully. Otherwise I might really get burned.


  1. Rachel Robson said,

    September 27, 2005 at 11:33

    There’s some lingering debate in the medical community about whether capsaicin can actually hurt you, but right now it’s looking like the answer is “no.” Quite a few different bacterial species are killed by capsaicin, and the chemical induces suicide in some cancer cells, but it doesn’t appear to damage whole organisms.

    Capsaicin makes your cells release inflammatory mediators, which increase vascular dilation and thus blood flow. This is why spicy foods make you sweat, and I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination why chilies are also considered an aphrodisiac in many cultures. After all your inflammatory mediators have been used up in a given area, it takes a while to make new ones, which is why chilies can be used as a topical pain reliever–Rubbing chilies on your owie will make it hurt like hell for a few seconds, and then not hurt at all. This is called “the chili pepper cure.”

    Some evidence suggests that using up all of those inflammatory mediators all the time (in folks like your street vendor, who eat a lot of spicy foods for a lifetime) may make cells tolerant to inflammatory stimuli, and thus increase one’s pain threshhold. In any case, us spicy food lovers all know that one’s tolerance for capsaicin increases, so that we have to eat increasingly spicy foods just to get the same masochistic rush we’ve gotten from blander foods in the past.

    Experimental animals, given a choice of a high capsaicin diet (as much as 1% capsaicin–hotter than Jungle Curry!) will consistently choose spicy foods over their regular diet. Before H. pylori was discovered to be the cause of virtually all stomach ulcers, spicy foods were believed to be a factor in ulcer formation. But more and more it appears that the search for a negative health consequence of eating spicy foods is just a result of an ancient philosophic bias in the medical community toward moderation.

    Not that moderation’s a bad thing–just that when it comes to food, it looks like it’s okay to say, “spicy. spicy spicy.”

  2. Penelope said,

    September 27, 2005 at 20:07

    I like this story, particularly the appetizing neverending bowl of soup image. I think the street vendor had it in for you.

    At this time, I’d also like to make a few introductions in the community of Ron’s fans. Rachel, above, is a professor of biology, one of my oldest and favorite friends, and a damned fine teacher. Between her and Ron, who has a degree in physics and whose job is far more interesting than his profile here makes it sound, I’ve learned a lot about science. I love being able to say, “Some of my best friends are scientists.”

    Tim, who has commented extensively on earlier posts, is a neuroscientist. He and Rachel might enjoy comparing notes, now that they know each other’s credentials.

    And me, I’m the not-quite comma Nazi. If you know me, you’ve probably figured out who I am. “Penelope” is a nickname Ron gave me once, and I’m using it here because it’s fun to have a pseudonym whenever one can find a thin excuse. Why Penelope? It’s a knitting thing.

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