The Spice Crisis

Sunghoon Kwak - India


November 16, 2017

I’m having an identity crisis.
It’s an ongoing one, actually. Let me elaborate:
As a Korean child living in the US, I felt that my Korean background would be something that would stay with me, but also something that would slowly fade as I grew older. As a result, I’d try to overcompensate for my loss of culture by partaking in activities that exemplified the ideal Korean. These activities included, but were not limited to, downing spicy dishes, listen to edgy and niche Korean bands, and watching Asian serials on TV. I grew to dislike doing anything involving the last two, so I held onto my affinity for spicy foods as if it were my last strand of connection to anything Korean.
For most Koreans, being able to handle spicy things is a source of pride. I am no exception. I can recall many instances where I would muscle through the spiciest dishes with tears running down my face because it somehow made me feel more connected to my roots. In fact, just months before landing in India, I held a contest with my American friends involving an insanely spicy noodle mix from Korea. The winner would be the one to finish their entire bowl. ‘There’s no way I’ll let my non-Korean peers win,’ I thought at the time. Despite protests from my burning tongue and the rumblings of my bowels, I forced the noodles down, gasping for air once I finished the deadly meal.
In the same way that an individual who is insecure with their sexuality is ashamed to show any acts that would imply a deviation from the norm, I was ashamed to show any signs of struggle when handling the spiciness of certain dishes. Whenever I would visit a relative in Korea, they would ask if I am able to handle spicy food.
“No, he’s not too great with heat,” my mom would always say.
In return, I’d deny her remark harshly. I’d foolishly force myself to eat the hottest meal soon after. To me, displaying that I could eat tongue-numbing foods in front of my Korean relatives was the ultimate test of whether I was truly Korean. To me, an assumption that I couldn’t handle spice was the greatest insult to my identity.
Not super healthy. I know.
I needed to confront the problem, and what better place to do it than the home of some of the spiciest food around – AKA India? In fact, I faced one of the hottest dishes I have ever tasted just before landing in Delhi. The biryani (rice dish) being served in the Air India flight looked especially appetizing. I took a spoonful of rice and shoveled it into my mouth.
Have you ever had something so unpleasant in your mouth that you’d be willing to devote your life to a deity or confess your worst sins just be able to spit it right out? No? Me neither. But this was probably the closest thing to making that scenario a reality.
I swallowed and forced a few more spoonfuls into my mouth. The roof of my mouth was burning, but I didn’t want to admit it. I looked around to see if anyone else was struggling with the food. I saw Emma and Ayla covering their mouths, eyes wide open.
“I’m screwed if all Indian food is like this,” I heard Creede mutter.
I laughed and put my spoon down. There was nobody to impress. Nobody would think less of me if I wouldn’t be able to finish this scorching meal. It was liberating in a way.
“This is really spicy,” I admitted to Emma, who sat right next to me. She was unaware that I had just come out of the spice-closet. I didn’t have to fake liking hot food anymore. It felt great.
Funnily, I haven’t encountered anything as spicy as that biryani from our initial flight into Delhi. It was almost like the universe was trying to say, “You’re nothing special” right before plopping me down into the spice central of the world.
Despite now being adverse to hot food, I didn’t feel any less Korean. In fact, I felt even more so in an environment that is so unfamiliar to me.
Ever since, I have been openly rejecting spicy foods, and my host family has acknowledged that I like my food milder than an average Bob Ross episode. A few days ago, before ordering some biryani, my host mom asked me if I could handle spicy food.
“No, I’m not too great with heat,” I admitted with a smile.

Sunghoon Kwak