“This is spicy!” my youngest daughter cried, as she took a bite of the evening meal — a kind of burrito that I fashioned from naan bread and boneless chunks of spiced chicken I bought from a nearby Indian restaurant, and then rolled up with plain yogurt and salad veggies. “I can’t eat it.”
I extracted a chunk of the chicken from my own burrito and chewed it, feeling maybe a pinprick or two of heat on my tongue. “I don’t think it’s that spicy, ” I suggested.
“It’s not spicy at all, ” said her sister, mouth full.
“It’s a little spicy, ” countered my wife, doing that thing that moms do. That “you’re both right” thing.
My daughter did manage to eat most of her sandwich that evening, with extra yogurt and iced tea to wash it down. But this kid perplexes me. How did she emerge from our household so spice intolerant?
For years she’s grown up in a household where Mexican, Indian and Korean dishes abound. The mild cuisines of, say, Northern Europe, the Arctic and the Midwest never make appearances. If there is a hot dog, then the spicy mustard comes out. If there is spaghetti in meat sauce, then the bottle of sriracha goes on the table as the expected condiment along with Parmesan cheese.
The oldest of my three daughters, now in college, grew up to be a proper little chilehead. She likes fresh jalapeno on her sandwiches and craves hot curries in any form.
The middle daughter, now in high school, took a little longer to develop her taste for capsaicin. I remember her asking me a few years ago why I liked spicy food: “I think it just hurts, ” she said. “Why does it feel good to you?”
But now she likes the tingle of spice, particularly when it complements an Asian-style sweet and salty sauce. Just not too much: She tastes her food, reaches for the bottle of sriracha and applies four to five tiny dots, placed just so, around the plate.
The youngest, strangely enough, used to like spicier foods. We’d get hot chile cashews and samosas from the little Indian snack shop near our house, and the two of us would take these treasures home and eat them in the kitchen. But in the past couple of years her palate has been more in thrall to fat. She is, more than anyone in the family, a fan of cheeseburgers, buttery potatoes and chocolate ice cream. She has just discovered creme brulee and thinks there is nothing better on the planet. Perhaps she is going through a “rich food” phase and any intimation of spice feels like a harsh slap.
I’ve often wondered about kids who grow up in cultures that eat a lot of spicy foods. So do a lot of people, apparently, as it’s a common topic on parenting message boards. Specifically, people want to know if it’s OK to feed their kids spicy dishes.
The general consensus is “no problem.” A respondent who identifies himself as Indian says his mother gradually introduced him to spicier and spicier foods. A Korean man said his mother used to wash the red chile marinade off kimchee before feeding it to him as a toddler. Most said that by the time kids are 6 or 7 they eat pretty much the same food as their parents.
And of course everyone noted that personal preference can transcend culture. There are plenty of Thais and Mexicans who don’t like the burn of hot chiles.
But I’m very curious to hear from readers on this issue. Did you grow up in a culture that celebrated spicy foods? If so, when did your palate adjust? Do you have little kids who like hot foods as well as you do or — is it possible? — more than you do?
Now, I’m off to meet my family at our favorite Mexican restaurant, where I’m getting the hottest thing on the menu, and my youngest will have her favorite: cheese dip with no jalapenos.