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My strange love/hate relationship with spicy food

Red and green chilis - an attempt to make my own kondattam mulaku or salted curd chilis from locally available chilis. These are repeatedly soaked in buttermilk/sour curd and salt, then dehydrated in low heat in the oven or sun-dried for several days. They are prepared crispily fried and are typically served as a side dish. It originates in the South Indian region.
I am very sensitive to spicy food. What happens is that I start to sweat profusely as soon as that spicy morsel hits my tongue (a condition that is apparently called gustatory hyperhidrosis). Actually, the thought of eating spicy dishes makes me start to sweat (almost like a pavlovian response), just as the thought of eating unripe green mangoes will involuntarily make my lips pucker and make my salivary glands work in overdrive. I do not know what causes it and the fact that just by thinking about spicy dishes elicits this response makes me wonder if it is partly psychological in nature (or as I mentioned a result of some type of classical pavlovian conditioning). I just know that I have experienced this since I was a small kid. The funny thing is, I'm not particularly averse to consuming spicy dishes, but I do think that being heavily drenched in sweat, especially when you are eating out, is such a huge inconvenience that I have started dreading it. Filipino cuisine is not known for the use of strong spices (particularly Ilonggo food which I grew up eating), but we do have certain regions in the Philippines where the food can be considered as relatively spicy (the Bicol region in the southern part of Luzon comes to mind).

Dynamite Lumpia - stuffed chilies wrapped in lumpia wrapper then fried until crisp
I have lived and worked in Malaysia for almost 5 years and have been exposed not only to the wonderfully diverse Malay food has to offer but also with Indian and Chinese cuisine (and the famous fusion cuisines of Nyonya or Peranakan in Penang and Melaka as well as the distinctive influences of the Dutch, Portuguese, and British to the food culture. As you can imagine, I will be a sweaty mess after enjoying some of the spicier dishes but will be totally satisfied.

One of the best chili crabs, in my opinion, is at Restoran Fatty Crab in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia. The thick, spicy, and tangy sauce is best mopped up with some bread after you have finished with the crabs.

Some of my friends and former colleagues in Malaysia actually thought that I dislike spicy food since they notice that either I will avoid it completely or give in to the allure but end up like I just ran a mini-marathon. I do love moderately spicy dishes. I just don't usually eat it when eating out or in front of other people (even the tiniest hint of spiciness will have that sweaty effect). I would get all red-faced and would perspire a lot starting on the top of my head and typically drenching the upper part of my shirt (I would have this reaction with just having too much black pepper on my food). To avoid embarrassment and to avoid the constantly worried questions of whether I was OK, or if I was having some sort of allergic reaction or worse a heart attack (they did actually ask that when my friends took me out to eat Tom Yum at a Thai restaurant), I have gradually started to steer clear of spicy dishes when I have meals in the company of others (for close friends I do not have this issue though so consider it an honor if you see me sweating like a pig in front of you, either I don't care or I feel comfortable enough with you that it doesn't matter haha). When I am in the comfort of my own home, then it is a different matter.

Gising-gising - a dish from Pampanga made up of sliced chilis and other vegetables cooked in coconut milk

I have successfully cooked my own versions of Southeast Asian classics such as crispy ikan bilis and kangkong with sambal belacan, tom yam goong, laksa, as well as local favorites bicol express and gising gising, much to the delight of my taste buds (but requiring a face towel wrapped around my head most of the time). I am also a huge fan of local spiced vinegar from sinamak of the Ilongggos, to the pinakurat from Iligan.

A big vat of sinamak at Bulalo Fiesta - a spiced vinegar made from coconut sap vinegar, chilis, and other spices

Green chilis wrapped in bacon
I remember a few years back when I was still based in Malaysia, I just started on this new diabetes medication (Liraglutide) and although it was quite effective with the control of my blood glucose levels, it had this unfortunate side-effect of totally wiping-off my sense of taste (interestingly, it is also sold as a weight-loss drug under a different brand name but at a higher dosage). Words are inadequate to describe how miserable I felt during those times. I would eat because I was hungry but there was no joy in eating. Each bite is just about the texture. Where one dish would feel like eating cardboard, another would feel like eating a wad of paper napkins. It took about 3 months of this dreadful existence before the side-effects began to wear off. One of the most memorable experiences of my "flavor reawakening" is when a friend invited me to eat in one of those Indian banana leaf restaurants in which a banana leaf is placed in front of you with a heap of parboiled basmati rice and various side dishes (mostly spicy curries and a basket of papadum) are placed around the rice for you to taste and enjoy using your hands. I can only imagine my first reaction to actually tasting the food - eyes widening in disbelief, a hesitant second mouthful of food and proceeding with much more enthusiasm like it was the first food I have ever tasted. I still have fond memories of having banana leaf meals and would sometimes crave for it. One advantage of going with an Indian friend is that he is able to order items off the menu (such as these yummy salty curd chilis, or kondattam mulaku, which they would gladly serve as a complimentary condiment but only if asked for - delightfully salty, spicy, and crunchy, a perfect accompaniment to an already excellent meal).

Banana leaf meal fried fish (spoon and fork use is optional) 

Banana leaf with mutton curry and a refreshing lassi beverage
So it is no surprise that I would sometimes attempt to recreate some of these dishes at home. What should I try making next? I can't wait for the next food adventure. I'll just need to make sure that I have a face towel handy. :)

My version of Ikan bilis and Kangkong with Sambal Belacan


Anonymous said...

There's a spot on my scalp that sweats when I eat sour food. At least it's just that spot. But it's weird how individual bodies react to food.

JEP said...

Does your body react to the sour food itself or does thinking about eating sour food produce the same reaction? Yeah, indeed it is very interesting.