A Singaporean Who Doesn’t Take Spicy Food is Not Singaporean. Discuss.

Auntie, no chilli please.

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This story is a collaboration between Burpple and Rice as part of Rice’s new food column.

Since time immemorial, two types of Singaporeans have never gotten along: those who can handle (and LOVE) spicy food, and those who lead sad lives.

The former consider spicy food a reflex rather than a choice; food has no taste unless it’s spicy, and everything needs to be eaten with chilli.

In Chinese restaurants, their first request is for chilli oil or cut chilli. They douse their nasi padang in sambal belacan, and add copious amounts of chilli flakes and/or Tabasco to their pizza, all while judging their peers whose taste buds are set aflame from a mere whiff of chilli powder.

But rather than gradually build up their spice tolerance in the same way you might ‘train’ yourself to hold your liquor better, non-spice eaters remain perfectly content opting for the basic version of dishes, completely missing the meaning of life.

Ultimately, non-spice eaters are judged because of a cultural perception that true blue Singaporeans should be able to handle spice. This often manifests in condescension masked by casual ribbing, or subtle but pointed barbs that can make a non-spice eater feel like having no/low spice tolerance is a moral failing. (Just to be clear: it is.)

rice_1st imageQuarter Chicken Set from Chix Hot Chick’n. (Image: Burppler Ethel Tan.)

Just ask former non-spice eater, 28-year-old Julian Wong, who should be so lucky his spice-loving friends haven’t disowned him for the atrocious crimes he’s committed in hawker centres: namely, ordering kway teow goreng—white.

“I would order it while having supper with friends, and it never occurred to me how lame this was until I was called out for it one day. A friend commented, ‘Eh why you always order kway teow goreng white? Who eats kway teow goreng white??’” he laughs.

“It was confusing, not least because I never actually specifically asked for it to be white. I would just say, ‘No chilli’, the server would respond, ‘White?’, and I would just nod.”

The iconic “kway teow goreng white” episode was the wake-up call after years of living in blissful ignorance. He realised his inability to handle spicy food was often judged harshly, especially in situations where one has to have chilli with something, or if spice is central to appreciating a dish.

For instance, he once got the stink eye from a colleague at his previous workplace when he asked them to da bao nasi goreng without chilli. He recalls someone remarking, “Wah lao, why you Singaporean cannot take chilli one?”

Even hawkers themselves have made their displeasure known, albeit more passive-aggressively than his peers. Once, he ordered chilli ban mian and opted for ‘no chilli’ when asked how much chilli he wanted. The hawker “literally tsk-ed” in response.

“These incidents have happened enough times for me to realise that at the back of everyone’s minds, there is an ‘us versus them’ mentality surrounding those of us who can take spicy food and those of us who can’t,” he explains.

rice_image2Xiao Man Niu Mala Xiang Guo from The Star Vista. (Image: Burppler Russell Leong.)

Like many other non-spice eaters, Julian had neither parents who nurtured his taste buds when growing up or any kind of natural curiosity towards spicy dishes. So it always felt like he was being judged for something that wasn’t entirely his fault.

Instead of trying to develop an appreciation for spicy food, he found himself increasingly justifying his distaste for chilli or overly spicy food. Food, he would argue, should have taste—and taste shouldn’t hurt.

“What’s the point if all you feel is heat and nothing else? What’s wrong with you? Why do you need to take chilli with everything? Are you using your spice tolerance to mask the fact that, really, you lack the capacity for appreciating nuance in flavour?” he argues.

This defensiveness isn’t surprising. Spice-lovers like myself are used to the great divide across a dining table as we notice ‘our people’ pour out saucers full of chilli, while the rest avoid it like the sole piece of cucumber on a plate of chicken rice. Whenever this happens, an unspoken but palpable feeling of judgement passes between the two camps.

Because spice-lovers know the wonders of a whole new world that opens up with just a dab of chilli, the judgement associated with not eating spice is often more than about having differing palates.

To us, it points to a bigger character flaw. It’s about not being open-minded enough to embrace diversity. It’s about settling for ‘good enough’ or ‘lukewarm’ when there is a spectrum of ‘great’ and ‘red-hot’.

In Julian’s case, love won…

Read on to find out more.

This story is a collaboration between Burpple and Rice as part of Rice's new food column