Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I Can't Eat Spicy Food: How a "flaw" generated a new perspective

         "You can't handle spicy food? But you're Indonesian!" A friend said, shocked. Well, sorry to spike your pulse there mate, just so you know, not all Indonesians love spicy food, despite the fact that some are known to bring a bottle of sambal or extremely hot sauce everywhere they go.

For the first fifteen years of existence, I despise hot food. My grandmother, who cooked most of my meals, would sneak some chilly sauce, or put way too much pepper just to encourage me to gain much-needed tolerance. "It's better when it's hot, right?" She'd say whenever she sees me cringe on the first bite. Well, the thing is, initially it did not taste better. Slowly, however, I did gain tolerance. Today, I reinforce my mother's bad habit of carrying a bottle of togarashi, a type of Japanese chilly powder, by incorporating them into my meals. Furthermore, I have begun opting for wasabi instead of soy sauce whenever eating sushi.
False Perspective or Larger Perspective

So, what does eating spicy food have to do with anything?

1. Feels Like Aging. With age, our taste palettes change. In addition to gradually eating spicy dishes, I have begun craving more fruits and stopped gagging at each bite of vegetable. Although, I still refrain from eating enough fruits and veggies, I'd like to think of it as experimenting and beginning a process, where I would slowly learn to get used to these things like I did with chilly or peppers. Also, knowing that preference in taste changes inspires me to try new types of foods, be it different main ingredients, spices or dishes from different nationalities.

2. Having Control. Learning how to eat and enjoy eating various things provides me with much needed control. No longer do I feel that I am naturally disinclined to consume certain things, be it greens or reds. However, I am convinced that with a little mind control and practice, I will be able to overcome my fears and dislikes. More importantly, food is connected with other things in life, including health, nutrition and exercise. Being inspired to try new things might lead towards other life changes, whether it is cutting my hair short, taking up running, or tanning (Just kidding!)

3. Stereotypes. Come on, you didn't think that I would just forget about that opening comment, did you? Give yourself more credit.
         Not being able to eat spicy foods for years somehow helped me defy my Indonesian identity. However, instead of being the sole driver of my challenge to pass as Indonesian, it just added on to it. Interestingly, it also provided me with an escape, which I didn't necessarily crave for. I did not look Indonesian, nor did I eat like one, giving me a leeway to assume other identities and distance myself from the one I was born with. These instances just begs the question of what makes an Indonesian? Who are Indonesians? And what are our characteristics?
         On another note, it just showed how diverse Indonesians are. In a sense, I did not have to learn about over-generalizations in a liberal arts school, since I experienced it first-hand, with my lack of tendency to sweat and need a pitch of water each time I bite on a chilly.

Spicy and Green

One "flaw" has offered so much opportunities to gain new perspective on life and identity. For years, I felt ambivalent to my inability. Unlike other shortcomings, I did not feel the need to compensate. There were enough options in the world for me to overlook my challenges. Even so, I would brace for any unwanted comments at the dinner table by putting on an armor. Although it came rarely, I did feel a pang of nostalgia to become like other Indonesians, whatever that meant.

Unfortunately, the words "be careful what you wish for" never gets old. Once I learned to tolerate, I began to lose my ability to taste the subtlest tastes, instead I'd grab for a chilly sauce or wasabi just to reach some gastronomic satisfaction. Losing the ability to trace the slightest spice in a dish feels much more debilitating than the inability to eat spicy foods. However, life is a give and take, and somehow, in retrospect, it's funny what we gain from our challenges and what we lose from overcoming them.

Although, this is a piece on food and culture and stereotypes, it goes to show how little things reflect more pertinent things in life, be it identity, group association, or nationality.

*All photos were provided by the author

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