Some Like it Hot — U.S. Diplomats Negotiate Spicy Foreign Foods
The chemical compound capsaicin is responsible for the spice and heat in spicy dishes. While particular plants, peppers, and vegetables evolved to produce capsaicin as a defence mechanism against hungry mammals, humans have developed a liking for the sensation that this fiery compound creates. Many cuisines across the globe use a variety of spices and blends to create the delicious dishes we know and love today.
Paprika, chili peppers, cumin, coriander, garlic, and ginger are just a few of the spices and herbs that have been combined in a variety of ways to produce the most delicious curries, sauces, chilis, and soups.
Certain countries and regions have become known for their delicious and face-numbingly spicy food. Szechuan, China is known for its bold flavors, while India is renowned for its hot vegetarian dishes. It comes as no surprise that many travelers around the world make a point to try spicy local dishes whenever visiting a new country or city.
Like many travelers, as U.S. diplomats arrive at their assigned post, they are keen to try local cuisine and explore the rich culture around them. It is no surprise that several diplomats and spouses end up sampling some of the most spicy dishes in the world, and some end up “biting off” more than their taste buds can handle.
Diplomatic spouse Hazel Sokolove and diplomats Harvey Leifert and Marshall P. Adair share anecdotes about their experiences with spiced local cuisine in India, China, and Ethiopia respectively.
Drafted by Elizaveta Pinigina
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HAZEL SOKOLOVE—Diplomatic Spouse
“Whatever it is do not eat any peppers off this table, because what they’re going to bring is the hottest thing we have.”
Peppers in India: I always remember the breakfast, it was some kind of gruel I couldn’t stand but oh, the spicy foods — I just thought they were marvelous. I’ve often said, I still say it, if I could learn to cook vegetarian food the way they cooked it, with their spices, which I use a great deal of myself, I would never eat meat again. That’s how excellent they are, those who are good cooks. However, we were not too long in Bombay. We went on to Madras, got some beautiful handicrafts …
Q: That’s where you really began eating spicy foods, wow!
SOKOLOVE: Yes. And she would warn me but I couldn’t be warned, you know, I was young and I thought, “Oh, I love spicy things,” but she had once said — when she came in Madras we were not in a private home, we were in a sort of state guest house, something like that, and we then went out by horse and buggy to a restaurant. It was big, it looked cosmopolitan to me, I was surprised to see the kind of dining room this restaurant was. And she warned me, she said, “Now, I know you like the spicy foods and I’ve ordered something for myself but remember, whatever it is do not eat any peppers off this table, because what they’re going to bring is the hottest thing we have.” I said, “All right.” She had ordered a number of small dishes, you know how Indians serve, and when they came they were delicious. Quietly I reached over and took a pepper and put it in my mouth, the jalapeno pepper. Not only could I not talk, I couldn’t breathe, it cut off my windpipe like that! The tears began to roll and I was gasping. The waiter came and they brought me lassi — of course I didn’t know what lassi was then but I realized how marvelous it is — and water, and she said, “You’re learning the hard way.” (laughter) And I really was. I never touched them again, I can tell you. And I love hot spicy food, but not that way. It was there on the trip that I have to tell you this because I’ll go back and tell you a little bit more about the things we bought and where they went. She’d taught me to eat (unable to recall the word, says it will come to her later) and that was something I wanted to carry home in my mind to Henri. We went to the outer circle of Konod, where the South Indian restaurant is and ate, and I said to him, “The first time you eat it, the perspiration will come all through your hair, down your face, but after that …” and it was true, he loved it, and we always …
MARSHALL P. ADAIR—Foreign Service Officer (1972-2007)
“It’s got a very unusual spice that’s used almost nowhere else in the world that I have seen.”
Unique Spice in Sichuan: The weather is unusual because all those mountains, they trap the clouds. The Sichuan basin has a thin layer of clouds all the time and you very rarely see blue sky. It’s not dark, just hazy all the time. That also means that it is more humid and damp. That has affected agriculture and that has also affected Sichuan cuisine. One of the reasons that Sichuan’s food is so spicy is it’s designed to counteract that humid climate. And it’s got a very unusual spice that’s used almost nowhere else in the world that I have seen: the Sichuan peppercorns. These are not the little Thai spicy green peppers. These are peppercorns that grow on a tree. They have a very pungent, numbing taste and that is specifically useful for getting rid of excess moisture in the body. Everything about Sichuan is unique.
HARVEY LEIFERT— Foreign Service Officer (1965-1991)
“I still would get those cravings a couple of weeks after each meal”
Delicious Ethiopian Cuisine with a Kick: Yeah, this was in the dark ages. But, what else I remember was my introduction to Ethiopian food. I absolutely remember the first time several of the staff took me to lunch— Ethiopian staff took me to lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant. Now, this wasn’t a real restaurant. This was in somebody’s house, a woman served lunch to people she knew, basically. And, she made the most wonderful Ethiopian food. And it was spicy. Let me tell you. They said they toned it down for me, but still it was, it was outrageously spicy. I like spicy food, but up to a point. Anyway, I did it. And after, I said to myself, okay, I’ve done my duty; I’ll never have this again. And, you know, after a week or two, I started getting a craving for it and started going to regular restaurants. There was one that was set up for tourists, especially: nice decor, food is a little more refined, but it was still quite authentic. And, I went there with some of the other staff occasionally. That was, it was wonderful, and I still would get those cravings a couple of weeks after each meal. And, after I left the post, I continued for at least a year to want to have some Ethiopian food. Not till I got back to Washington in retirement was I able to do that. And I’ll tell you, I haven’t found any restaurant here that truly reminds me of that first meal.