My Adventures (and Mishaps) with Spicy Mexican Food
Spicy food certainly isn’t for everyone, and especially not for many foreigners. Chili is even a fear-food for some visitors, but these tips will help you navigate the spice minefield that is Mexico.
I’m Spanish, and despite having spent many years in Mexico, eating spicy food is still a constant challenge for me. I know I’m not alone in this, as every day I meet plenty of other foreigners who feel just the same way! What’s more, whenever I go back to Spain and see old friends or family, I am asked the same question: “Is everything as spicy as they say it is over there?”
If you are a foreigner who has spent any length of time in Mexico, what I’m about to tell you will most likely be familiar! When back at home, I tried to explain that yes, many things are spicy, but you can avoid spice if you really want to. Although it’s also true that you soon become used to a new level of spice! Whenever I bring souvenirs of spicy candies, chipotle chips or a salsa home with me, people seem to panic after only one bite!
Even after a number of years living in this chili-field country, I still couldn’t imagine myself biting into a whole chili or ordering a dish with extra spice! I think it might be a genetic thing: we foreigners are just not prepared for spice, especially not when you come from a country like Spain, where there are people who consider black pepper “spicy”…yes, really!
And my reasons for thinking that we are not genetically capable of eating chili also comes from personal experience, not just observation. Get ready to laugh at the misfortune of one Spanish woman with a decidedly delicate palate. One day, I almost experienced death-by-chili. I was invited to a meal with a group of Mexican food lovers, who also happened to be lovers of spice. I, naively, was excited to spot a molcajete (pestle and mortar) on my table. Without further thought, I served myself a generous helping. Bad decision. Very bad decision. Soon, in the middle of the sauce I had served myself appeared a small, shiny yellow pepper. I immediately assumed it must be a piece of one of the large, sweet peppers that I knew well, so into my mouth it went.
I realized my error after about 0.5 milliseconds. To this day, I can’t accurately describe what I felt in my mouth, basically because as well as turning immediately mute, I couldn’t even think. I was paralyzed. Faced with the oral inferno, my brain stopped. I can only imagine the rainbow of colors that my face was exhibiting, because my companions rushed to my aid, lamenting “Oh no, it was a habanero chili!”
One hour later, when my brain had begun to function again, I asked myself why no-one had thought to warn me… something which would have saved me a few hours of a numb palate and a mental short-circuit. Not only that, but I would have avoided the eternal shame of being baptized “The Spanish girl that can’t handle the spice”.
Since that fateful day I always, always ask if something is spicy or not. I also think twice when the response I receive is “a little”, because as I have said, the level of tolerance and the way of describing what is spicy and what isn’t is very relative. Asking a Mexican “Is this spicy?” is an adventure in itself. I have now experienced a few instances of being assured “No, it’s not spicy at all” and “No Miss, it’s really not spicy” …and, well, you can imagine how those stories ended. To the “No, it’s not spicy” I responded with “Jesus Christ, if this is the ‘not spicy’ one, how hot is the ‘spicy’ one?”
Learn from My Mistake
One day, I discovered the solution I’d been missing for moments like these when you have to decide if to try a new, unfamiliar food or not. Someone told me not to ask if it was “spicy”, but instead if it “contained chili”. A great piece of advice, because if you ask if something is spicy, the most common response will be “No, only a little bit” even when it’s quite likely it’s incredibly spicy!
So, I will leave you with my Mexican Spice-ometer for foreigners:
- When a Mexican says: “No, this doesn’t have chili”, it means it’s slightly spicy.
- When a Mexican says: “It’s a little spicy”, it means it’s pretty spicy.
- When a Mexican says: “It’s pretty spicy”, it means non-spice lovers beware.
- And if a Mexican ever says to you: “Yes, it’s very spicy” …I advise you to run. Don’t look at it, don’t sniff it, and whatever you do, don’t put it in your mouth!
So now you know, before trying any Mexican dish, ask if it contains chili, and for the love of God don’t eat half a habanero chili in one bite. You have been warned!
More info on Mexico: here.