china · foodstuff

On Chinese Spiciness

When I first arrived in China via Beijing, I was all jitters. It would be my first time traveling alone. My last overseas venture had been to Tamil Nadu, India where I had served as a missionary as part of seven man (there were only two men including myself) group. Fortunately, I had a friend from college who lived in Beijing, and we had arranged to meet at the airport. To save money, I had no desire to remain in Beijing for more than two days, I would stay with him at his apartment.

We met inside the terminal. We hugged; we cried; we wrote poetry expressing how glad we were to see one another, and then we set off into Beijing. I will admit I was thoroughly disappointed on the brief train ride into the heart of the city. When I had arrived in Chennai, India, I was met with a mound of garbage on the side of the street, of which cows, sheep, and dogs were eating from. It had been a memorable sight.

There was no such excitement on the train.

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So, we arrive in Beijing, and my friend asks, “John, are you hungry?”

Now, I cannot remember what I was brought on the airplane, but it had been so foul that, after having been in the air for hours without nourishment, I refused to eat it. As you might suspect, I was a tad famished.

In response, I mention my affinity for noodles. If I have told you once, I will tell you a second time. I love noodles. With this in mind, he brought me somewhere else.

“Noodles are too cheap for your first meal,” he informed me.

We take the bus and then walk for about ten minutes to a nondescript street to a restaurant with a nondescript exterior.

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“John, what would you like?”

I am shown a menu which is two dozen pages with half-page pictures for each dish. Naturally, I tell him whatever tastes the best, but he harangues me until I say spicy and noodles. In later restaurants, with my inability to communicate fluently, I would play a game in which I randomly pointed to something on the menu and prayed it was edible.

The game could not be played with all of these photos, of course.

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Something spicy! If you cannot tell from the color, this was the spicy dish we had ordered, aside from the noodles. It was only 32 RMB (5.15 USD), and I found myself rather surprised. Look how much there is! After we had eaten, and I had visited other restaurants, I learned how expensive this meal had been, but that is another story.

My friend is something of an imp, so when this dish first arrived, he said, “John, you have to try the red bits. They’re delicious.”

Now, I cook. I knew they were peppers, but I also knew that some people eat peppers. So, when in Rome! I pick up one of the peppers, taste it, and then wash it down with water. It was spicy, yes, but it also tasted awful. That was why I needed the water.

He laughs at me. I feel the fool. You are not expected to eat the peppers, and the peppers are sixty/seventy percent of the plate. That’s over. I begin on the meat. He warns me that there are bones, so I am very careful in my nibbling.

I am disappointed. It is not that spicy. I have put away five of these nuggets and still I do not feel the need for a sip of water. I’m thinking China is pretty weak when it comes to the spice.

And then something horrifying happened. In the next five/ten minutes, I am on the verge of tears. I was in absolute misery.

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A numbness is creeping up my chest. An absence of sensation. Have you ever sat on your hand? That is what half of my body felt like.

My immediate thought: “Oh, Dear Lord, I am having a heart attack. I have not been in China for more than an hour, and I am having a heart attack. This is unusually cruel. Oh, Dear Lord.”

The numbness fades after five minutes or so, of which I have not moved an inch. My friend, being a glutton, does not notice this petrification until he asks me how the food is after having stuffed his face.

Foolishly, I am too embarrassed to tell him I just had a heart attack, instead muttering something unintelligibly and hoarsely. He laughs at me and asks if the chicken was too spicy.

If you look at the spicy dish once more, you will notice an orb amongst the white sesame. I cannot speak for all of China, or even for the Hebei province, but whatever province this restaurant was from, their idea of spiciness was not the haaa haaa of buffalo wings, but rather a numbness. Not knowing this, I actually thought that I was having a heart attack.

I did not meet these Devil Balls (what I took to calling them) often in my travels, but from the first day in Beijing to the last… back in Beijing, before I put any chicken, duck, donkey, or cow in my mouth, I would check for these Devil Balls and, if I found one, I would scrape it off.

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