If you’re at a Thai restaurant with a Thai person who’s ordering food in Thai, and she asks you if you like your food spicy, think twice before answering

I think you see where this is going.

I'm at a Thai restaurant with my sister-in-law, who is Thai. She's talking with the waitress in Thai, and she discovers that the restaurant's cook is someone she knows. And since she's from Thailand, she assumes the task of ordering the food, since she knows what's good and what isn't.

During their conversation (entirely in Thai, so I don't understand a word of it), she turns to me and asks, "So, is spicy food okay?"

I say, "Yeah, I like spicy food."

Classic rookie mistake.

I think that by the end of the meal, I had just started to regain the ability to taste the food.

Happy birthday, P—! And you'll be relieved to know that I can taste food again.

Comments (46)
  1. nathan_works says:

    I hope you weren’t interviewing your sister-in-law this time.. Or was she interviewing you ?

  2. Robo says:

    Spicy-ness is one of the most annoying thing about Thai food. Even within the same restaurant on different days "medium" can range from bland to mouth melting. I’d learned early not to try to correct for bland lest I get head exploding heat levels.

  3. Mike Dunn says:

    The last time I asked for spicy at a Thai restaurant, the waitress asked me "American spicy or Thai spicy?" I decided not to tempt fate and went with American spicy, which turned out to be exactly what she said, pretty dang spicy by American standards.

  4. Gabe says:

    I have an American friend who actually asks for "Thai Spicy" at our favorite Thai restaurant.

  5. Zero says:

    A local Thai place I go to has their food’s spiciness rated from 0-9.  I usually order "2" and find it fairly spicy by American standards.

    I’m pretty sure I would excrete bricks at anything above "5".

  6. Joshua Muskovitz says:

    …followed quickly by "OMG, I can see through time!"

    The only problem I have with spiciness and Thai food is that the foodstuffs which tend to look "toxic spicy" really aren’t, and the things which look completely benign are terrifyingly spicy.

    But I’ll second the notion that Thai places are able to accurately understand the distinction between American hot and Thai hot, and that on the 0-10 Thai hot scale, American hot comes in at around 2 or 3.

  7. Glorious says:

    Is tolerance of ‘spiciness’ something one can acquire or learn, or something you are born with?  I’m American, and seem to have a very high spice tolerance as compared to most of my countrymen.  But I don’t recall having eaten a lot of spicy food as a child.

  8. Paulie says:

    Out on an Thai Island, I attended a local party where the guest of honor was a family member who was a police officer (or chief, I don’t speak Thai and my mime skills are far to Western-centric) on the mainland.

    He knew Westerner’s were going to be there and wore a T-shirt, and shorts emblazoned with the word ‘Police’ in English.

    Turns out he wanted to quit the force and become a karaoke singer, of English songs. In English. So we were to be his guniea pigs and allowed to join in (*off topic: The lyrics were translated in to Thai and then back into English All Your Bases has nothing on these gems). About an hour in he walked off in huff. His Sister explained that he felt undermined, i was singing better than he was.

    He came back 15 minutes later, clutching a handful of local red chilli peppers, pointed at ne, popped one in his mouth, and then gave me one. I am English man half-way-half-way round the world being threatend into a chili eating contest, by a man who has grown up in a nation where spicy on food goes like wheels on cars, and he knows how to use a gun and hickory stick batons. I gratefully accept. After the third I can see in foreign languages and all the fluid in my body has dripped into the soil where life shall not grow again. I ended up having one and bowed out gracefully (ha-ha), I have no idea how many he ended up having but once I started running round screaming he seemed a lot happier, so I’m told. The rest of the evening is a little blurry.

  9. Tom says:

    @Glorious:  I believe the ability to detect spiciness is related to the number and density of taste buds on the tongue.  Since there is variation in both parameters, some people can tolerate spicy-hot better than others simply due to their inability to taste.

    As people age, their tastebuds tend to die off, so people tend to seek spicier foods as they get older.  As to /how/ to build up a tolerance..well, I think it’s just a matter of killing off your tastebuds with very spicy food! :)

  10. Leo Davidson says:

    "…and they come with an extra ‘spice package’ for the adults…"

    Poor kids missing out on good spicy tastes. :( I still remember when I was about four years old, when still living in the USA, my mum would take me to a diner and I’d ask for the chili con carne, as hot as they could possibly make it.

    Everyone looked around in horror and thought it was some mistake, but then it arrived and I gobbled it up. Kids can eat spicy food as much as adults. :-)

    Along the lines of Raymond’s story, if you are ever in London and go for a curry down Brick Lane — famous for its Indian (and similar) restaurants, please be aware that the spice levels on that street tend to be much hotter than you’d be used to from most other restaurants in the UK.

    The first time I went there I wanted something spicy so, to ensure it was, I ordered a phall. That’s one level above a vindaloo, but in many places even a vindaloo isn’t that spicy so I figured I’d order the level above it just to be sure, not realising my spiceometer was not calibrated for Brick Lane…

    What arrived was the hottest thing I have ever eaten. There was so much chilli powder in the sauce that there was powder on the plate because it hadn’t all dissolved.

    I ate it, of course. Sweating and in tears, of course. (Much to the amusement of the friends I was with.) And the next day it burned when I went to the bathroom, both number 1s and number 2s…

  11. Jim says:

    I went a social dinner event some time ago in the Thai restaurant. As usual everybody ordered one dish and I did the beef with "Dare devil" rating, I thought this dish got to be mine but I was wrong. A white guy sat at the head of the table got the dish first, and for some reason he thought that this the dish he wanted and hogged most of it, but he only had a one bite then he sreamed and jumped to the bathroom. I sorely missed that dish!!!

  12. quotemstr says:

    Maybe I should learn from Thai. Even the "extra spicy" level from my favorite restaurant barely tingles.

  13. pfftt, they "tried" me on the super spicy Thai food when I went to Malaysia, never really did anything for me

  14. Aaargh! says:

    "Is tolerance of ‘spiciness’ something one can acquire or learn, or something you are born with?  I’m American, and seem to have a very high spice tolerance as compared to most of my countrymen.  But I don’t recall having eaten a lot of spicy food as a child."

    Dunno, but I’m sure it’s not something I learned as a child. I really like spicy food but my parent’s don’t, the opposite in fact. The stuff that my mother rates as ‘extremely spicy’ is something that for an average person would barely register. When I visit them and I stay over for dinner I have to bring my own pepper mill because she doesn’t even own one.

    That being said, maybe it is one of those things that skips a generation. Apparently my grandfather (dad’s side) used to love spicy food.

  15. Stephen says:

    I think tolerance for spiciness is developed through exposure.  I was a complete wuss when I was young, because my parents couldn’t tolerate anything stronger than salami.  After a few years of building up with hotter and hotter buffalo wings, I can now barely even taste most store-bought salsas or "hot" sauces.  But I still know better than to order "Thai spicy"; that stuff is more painful than getting kicked in the ‘nads.

  16. Theo Winters says:

    I can’t do spicy at all, not even a little bit. Even Mild Hot Sauce is eye watering hot for me, the one time I tried tabasco on the advice from a friend ("It’s not really spicy at all" acording to him) I couldn’t taste for three days.

    It dosn’t matter how mild it is, it’s way to much for me. It cuts out a whole swath of food I would like to try, and usualy taste pretty good or the first 10 seconds before the burn ruins everything.

  17. Tim Smith says:

    I married a Thai and her mother loves to cook.  They tell me I must be an Asian at heart.

    If you are in a Thai restaurant and want real Thai spice, try a few Thai words…


    No "farang" (white), I want it "pet" (spicy).

    My family pronounces farang as "faa-long" which apparently is common but wrong.

    And yes, real Thai spices kill me too but they tell me a do better than most Americans.

  18. I go to a Chinese restaurant Hua Ting in Hinsdale, IL.. they have one dish Szechuan Beef that is so wonderful, I never both to explore the menu.. I only go there a few times per year and don’t want to miss any chance to eat their Szechuan Beef. But you have to order "Hen Lada", that means very spicy or "Good Spicy" in Chinese.. then they know you’re serious. If you just say "very spicy" then you have not ordered it correctly.

  19. Chris says:

    Some Americans actually can appreciate spicy food — those of us who haven’t been brainwashed to think spicy=bad.  I once feared peppers and spices, but now I am a huge fan of very hot foods, and the flavors that they contain (which the unaccustomed claim don’t exist since they don’t taste them).  Habanero is one of the most tasty peppers, yet most Americans fear it.  Thai Bird chiles are right up there in heat and have a wonderful taste.  I learned to love spicy food while on a very restrictive diet — I added hot peppers or low-sodium, low-sugar hot pepper sauces to the small, unfulfilling foods I was allowed to eat, and learned to love the complexity they brought to everything from eggs to cabbage…

  20. The owner of my local Thai restaurant tells me he often warns customers away from the genuinely spicy dishes. Of course, men in particular take this as a challenge rather than a warning, then end up screaming for the fire extinguisher as they bite into a lump of pain.

    (For anyone with taste buds, his wife’s "medium hot" dishes are quite nice, apparently the "hot" options are useful if you have a small country to annihilate.)

  21. steveg says:

    The hottest meal I had in Thailand was in Don Ithanon (a mountain national park, it was bliss, about 10C cooler, and very cute. Many Thai people were wearing gloves and beanies). An old lady ran a stand, I order some tom yum, and I used the one of the few words of Thai I knew, Pek! Pek! Pek! Apparently that’s not correct according to above, but hey, it worked (and it was 9 years ago maybe I forgot). Liquid fire. The clear soup was agony on the lips, the bits of meat blazed a trail of pain into my insides. Sweat broke out everywhere. I ate faster and faster to try make it stop…

    And the next day? Wow.

  22. MC says:

    Salad King (Thai Food) in Toronto has a spicy scale:

     Mild: Some dishes are already a bit spicy  

     Medium: A little kick

     1 chilli: A little kick

     3 chillies: Thai medium

     5 chillies: Watch out!

     10 chillies: Are you sure?

     15 chillies: Some like it hot

     20 chillies: Can cause upset stomach

    (from saladking.com)

    Don’t be fooled by this menu… it ain’t linear, it’s exponential (to my taste bud (I only got one left)). Great food though.

    They even have a stylized image of flames on their menu page.

  23. Cooney says:

    If you are in a Thai restaurant and want real Thai spice, try a few Thai words…

    I went to a thai place yesterday (bellevue at 108th and 6th) and ordered some panang curry 5 on a 4 point scale. They brought it out with so much cayenne pepper that it was crunchy on top. Sort of a burnm but I’m not sure how to get them to use something better than cayenne.

  24. Aaargh! says:

    > "Spicy-ness is one of the most annoying thing about Thai food"

    No, it’s one of the best things about it :)

    Usually when buying food in the supermarket or restaurants, if the package says ‘super-ultra brain-melting hot’ it’s usually extremely bland to the point of being taste-free. Thai and Indian places are usually the only ones actually giving correct ratings.

    I don’t know if this is the same in the US, but in the Netherlands for the last decade or so food in supermarkets has gotten more and more taste-free. The food companies are aiming for the biggest possible market and this means making the taste as generic as possible. There’s even products being marketed as ‘family dishes’, aimed at families with children, that have no taste at all, and they come with an extra ‘spice package’ for the adults. (e.g. one dish comes with ‘hot chili sauce’ which is actually *sweet* chili sauce with no detectable spiciness at all)

    I’m buying less and less supermarket food and more fresh meat/vegetables/spices/cheese/etc just because the lack of taste in the supermarket stuff. This costs me a few hours every saturday but it’s more than worth it.

    Also fun is going to a ‘chinese toko’ for ingredients. Usually the ratio of chinese/japanese characters to actual text I can read is a good indication of how good it will taste (more unreadable stuff = better taste)

  25. Stephen Speicher says:

    I, to this day, still shutter when I think of the time I had the following conversation:

    me: "1 Curry – 4 stars"

    host: "4 stars is spicy."

    me: "Yes — 4 stars"

    host: "You like spicy?"

    me: "Yes — 4 stars."

    host: "That’s spicy."

    me: "Yes, yes, yes spicy. I like spicy.  Give it to me spicy like a native."

    host: "OK"

    me (to wife through near tears): "I stopped feeling my tongue about 5 minutes ago… I will never arrogantly say ‘Spicy like a native again’."

  26. BOFH says:

    "Aaargh!": Try *cooking* some food some time.

    You can make it as spicy as you want.

  27. bofh says:

    BOFH – "Aaargh!": Try *posting an intelligent* comment some time.

    You can make it as insightful as you want.

  28. Lowsy Punster says:

    A new twist on being tongue-thai’ed.

  29. AK says:

    Maybe restaurants could standardize on something like the Scoville scale to describe the hotness of the food: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoville_scale

  30. Paul says:

    Melbourne, Australia, has a vast number of Thai restaurants; one, in particular (Ying Thai 2 in Carlton) is known to ‘those in the know’ as ‘Scary Thai’ due to the fact their ‘mild’ is ‘really @#$@ing hot’, their ‘medium’ = ‘blow the roof off an average 3-bedroom house’, ‘hot’ = ‘defoliate 100 sq km or so of rainforest’, and ‘very hot’ = ‘no, seriously. You don’t want this.

    It took me about 3 months of eating there once or twice a week for lunch before they’d stop trying to talk me out of ‘very hot’. Then I went there for dinner one evening, got the ‘night shift’ staff, and had to spend about 10 minutes explaining that I really did want Pud Prik Gang Lard Kao (sp?) VERY HOT, thank you very much.

    At one stage the waitress went and got the owner to try and talk to me, I think she was worried her English skills were too poor and were not adequately conveying the peril I was in.

  31. Cheong says:

    MapPoint 2009: Yeah, Szechuan "Water Boiled Beef" (水煮牛肉) is one of the famous spicy dish…

    When I went working at Shenzhen, China 2 years ago, my colleague and I went Szechuan to a Szechuan restaurant for dinner. Not knowing about it at that time, we ordered this dish which has "harmless name"… Later, we found out that it’s boiled slice of beef "immursed in red pepper oil". The vegetables in the dish is soaked full of the spicy oil already… We tried our best but only be able to finish half the dish.

  32. David says:

    Well, once I went to an Indian restaurant with a couple of English friends. I had a *big* ulcer in my mouth, so I asked the waitress for some mild food. He said ‘Ah, select this, this or this. Very mild.’…

    That’s how I learned the definition of ‘mild’ in India is different.

  33. It annoys me when Thai restraunts are inconsistent about the service they give to Americans.  I’ll go in one day and get my food nice and spicy with no added sugar, and go in the next day and 3 (out of 4) star has become bland and everything is sugary sweet.

    My favorite Thai resturant is like that, authentic one day, fake American crud the next.

  34. Kaenneth says:

    I have a friend who, rather unwisely, sprayed self-defense pepper-spray into his own mouth…

    He’s been in and out of mental hospitals often, good judgement in reguard to his personal well-being is not his strong suit.

  35. Aaargh! says:

    > "Aaargh!": Try *cooking* some food some time.

    I *know*. I love cooking, doesn’t mean I always have the time for it. If I want to make some quick dinner I usually start with something pre-made to get a head-start. e.g. a jar of pasta sauce instead of making my own. But my point is I always end up ‘tweaking’ the taste because the stuff is completely bland, even if the jar says ‘HOT’. Usually this goes completely out of control and I spend more than an hour making my ‘quick and easy’ dinner and some side dishes (I’m already in the kitchen so I might as well…).

    In the end the quick and easy dinner isn’t quick and easy anymore, which is exactly the problem. So either I get something completely tasteless or I spend a lot of time cooking.

    > You can make it as spicy as you want.

    And I do. Nothing better than a home made Thai curry.

  36. Steve Stewart says:

    The flip side of this is:

    If you’re in a Thai Restaurant, and are white, with white people, and speak only english, no matter how much you beg, the food won’t be spicy enough.

    You tell them "Yes, Thai Spicy. 10-peppers hot…I can do it" and they look at you like you’re insane, and don’t know what you’re saying, and bring out something that’s slightly spicier than what the dish is normally.

    *sigh*  I need a Thai friend.

  37. Clarence Odbody says:

    Farang is not white, it’s a european foreigner. "Cow" is white.

  38. I’m married to a Thai and i just love the spicy food. Thankfully we’ve got a good Thai restaurant where we live and we go there a few times per month.

    Usually she’ll order Thai spicy for me (they to distinct between Thai spicy and Western spicy). And i have to say, Western spicy barely tingles my tastebuds.

  39. Crocodile says:

    Here in Thailand, the incredibly spicy version is the default.

    To make it mouth-burning, but bearably spicy to a non-Thai, you have to say "not spicy" (if you say "little bit spicy", it would be too much to handle).

    Thais even put ground chili along with sugar on their fresh fruit (e.g. strawberries).

  40. William Wilson says:

    Well, son, here in Texas, we pride ourselves (big surprise huh?) on spicy… Jalapenos and Habinero peppers are candy.  But Thai, as in most "spicy" food from that part of the world is like setting off a nuclear bomb in downtown Dallas.  It’s HOT!  Totally different hot than is normal for human consumption.  

  41. Tim Smith says:

    "Farang is not white, it’s a european foreigner. "Cow" is white."

    Ok, tell that to my Thai family who are native Thai.  But they could just be simplifying it for my consumption. :)

    Thai can be very tricky.  It is a complicated language with many regional differences.  My family have told me that they often run into problems when they travel to different regions of Thailand where they have trouble being understood.

  42. Dave says:

    I don’t know if this is the same in the US, but in the Netherlands for the

    last decade or so food in supermarkets has gotten more and more

    taste-free. The food companies are aiming for the biggest possible market

    and this means making the taste as generic as possible.

    I once spent about several hours trapped by weather on an aeroplane, and had an interesting chat with a large food importer (or at least the person running it) in the US.  He said that although they could import all sorts of amazing stuff, they had to stick to the most bland, boring, tasteless pablum because that’s what sold best.  So this isn’t just a conspiracy theory, it’s really how the market works.  Luckily this country hasn’t got quite as bad as the US yet, where every cheese I bought in the supermarket tasted the same, from "Mild" through to "Super-duper radioactivly lethal extra strong".

  43. Dave says:

    I have an American friend who actually asks for "Thai Spicy" at

    our favorite Thai restaurant.

    It’s the same here, if you want properly hot food in an Indian restaurant you have to ask for "Indian hot", not just "hot", which is usually closer to medium/mild.

  44. Andreas says:

    @Glorious: Having lived in Thailand I can definitely say you can learn to eat spicy food. But you have to *learn* it by increasing the spiciness every day (or so) and if you don’t eat spicy food for a while you’ll quickly unlearn.

    @Tim: The original meaning of farang was literally "Frenchman", since the French were the first in the region, colonizing Cambodia, Vietnam and so on. Since Thais typically were very bad at telling different Caucasians apart (what about your skills of telling Asians apart?) once different flavors of Caucasians arrived at the scene (the British etc), all Caucasians were called farang. The British didn’t mind because they didn’t understand. Anyway, nowadays it just means "white foreigner".

    Usually if people has had some schooling they will understand "Bangkok Thai" which is what most foreigners are taught. Still people may very well talk to you in their own regional dialect. When living in Chiang Rai it took a while for me to realize that a lot of the words I learned were actually Northern Thai not Bangkok Thai.

    Btw, a very good way to impress girls is to order Thai spicy in Thai (unless the girl is Thai, then you should find other ways to impress or you’ll only embarrass yourself). You then let them taste your food and compare to their not-so-spicy food and they will be really impressed. Not only did you order in Thai, but you ordered inedible spicy (what a moron). Bonus points if you eat the whole dish. Embarrassment if you don’t. Anyway, that’s how I got married (at least I’d like to think that I’m married due to my mad Thai-spicy-eating skillz).

  45. Gregory Kong says:

    Eber Irigoyen : pfftt, they "tried" me on the super spicy Thai food when I went to Malaysia, never really did anything for me

    Well… eating Thai food in Malaysia is akin to eating Vietnamese food in Thailand, innit? You want true spicyness in Malaysia, you gotta have *Indian* food.

    Both Thailand and Malaysia (and Indonesia as well) use this little green chilli called Cili Api (or Cabe pronounced ‘Cha-beek’) which means Fire Chilli. Also called Cili Padi (Paddy Chilli). Doesn’t look very evil, really very small especially when chopped up, but earns a Scoville rating of ~100,000.

    Cheong : Yeah, Szechuan "Water Boiled Beef" (水煮牛肉) is one of the famous spicy dish…

    I’m betting this is what’s called ‘Szechuan Beef’ in Chinese restaurants all over Australia. Yeah, you gotta have the real version to comprehend its evilness.

  46. Abhishek says:

    Pfft. You wusses and your ‘spicy’ Thai food. ;) Try some Indian chilly curry made with choice Naga Jolokias! :P

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