Fun fact: I lived in Texas for about four years. My first week at Voigt Elementary School, I was dared by a gang of elementary school girls to eat an entire bag of Hot Cheetos in one sitting.
“In front of us,” their ringleader said with a self-satisfied smirk, as if she’d really gotten me now. She was a blonde girl whose hair, I remember, always looked like her mother couldn’t be bothered to comb through it.
I gulped and looked at the bag in my hands again. My eyes bore into the “hot” section of the snack bag’s label. I glanced back and forth between the ringleader and my Cheetos; I had the lowest tolerance for spicy food in my family and I knew I would lose.
But I also wanted to make friends, and taking up this challenge seemed like the perfect way to do it. After years of being awkward and shy, this school felt like the blank slate I was looking for.
All of this reflection is in hindsight, though. None of these thoughts were going through my 6-year-old head — all I cared about was whether my daredevil personality impressed the Cool Kids™.
“So, are you?” the ringleader asked again. I hastily opened the bag and stuffed a handful of Cheetos in my mouth. I expected my eyes to water, nose to start running and ears to turn red. The last thing I expected was to feel utterly underwhelmed.
I think I finished the bag in less than 30 seconds.
That was the day I realized that American food was seriously bland and, if I’m being honest here, that I went to school with a bunch of wimps. Listen to me: Hot Cheetos aren’t spicy.
It’s important to me that whoever’s reading this column knows that.
I grew up with home-cooked meals everyday. I’m talking freshly made rice, rotis and shaag every single day of the week, three times a day, made by my superhuman mother. She was also notorious for putting an extra (unnecessary) chili in any item.
She would chop up small, but deadly, green chilies into plain (plain!) rice and beans, and serve it to us with a flourish, ignoring my brother’s and my watering eyes.
Her efforts, though, have built up a certain amount of spice immunity within every member of my family. I recently ordered a No Thai dish at the second-to-last spiciest option, “yoga flame,” trying to ease my way through the levels, and felt absolutely nothing.
And although it feels a bit mean-spirited sometimes — like my slam on the ringleader’s unkempt hair earlier in the column — my family and I can’t help but find someone’s inability to handle spice comical.
My family and I frequent a small, Indian street food restaurant in Canton called “Neehee’s.” Its overly cramped space — with garish orange walls and ridiculously long queues — serves the most delicious, authentic Indian food I’ve ever tasted here.
Meaning it’s spicy.
One day, a customer in front of me, someone not of Indian origin and someone who definitely did not grow up accustomed to my mother’s palette, ordered each of their dishes by ending with the phrase “no spice please.”
My father turned to me, shocked, and said in Hindi, “My god, what is he going to eat?”