Growing up in a Vietnamese-American household, there were a lot of ingredients I could find in my kitchen that I would come to understand weren’t common across my peers’ households. The flavors and staples of cuisine I would come to use in my own cooking and dining, once I was old enough to learn, weren’t always the same as my friends. Garlic and onion powder were fine, but what really did the trick was mushroom seasoning. Spaghetti wasn’t bad, but we had rice vermicelli noodles far more often. No salt and pepper at the dining table; in this household, we worshiped soy sauce and sriracha.
I didn’t truly have a preference for ‘Vietnamese’ ingredients over ‘American’ ingredients, though. My mother was more concerned with cooking healthy than cooking traditionally, making all our dishes a fusion of cultures and nutritious efficiency in one way or another. But one of the things that I couldn’t bring myself to love was the sensation of spice. Out of all my immediate family, I remained a baby around that villainous capsaicin. My brother did fine adding some chili to his noodle stews and soups. My sister loved spice the most, squeezing the sriracha bottle into near oblivion some days when it ran low. And my parents were where they got it from, both loving an even spicier pepper crisp that they’d sprinkle on any piece of food except fruit. Sometimes I humored the idea that my siblings got all the genetics that loved spice, and left me none. A darned trick of birthright, that I was too late to earn.
Growing up, my spice tolerance never got better. I could handle a little, and I grew comforted by the fact that I at least seemed to have better tolerance than some of my peers, but spice itself still wasn’t a pleasurable sensation for me. There were times when my mother would set aside a portion of a meal without extra heat specifically for me, or when she wouldn’t and I had to chow down pretending like my mouth wasn’t burning. But it was all in good fun, and I wasn’t truly insecure over it. It was something so small and menial.
When I came to college though, I felt so far away from the familiar blend of Vietnamese and American ingredients in their large dining halls. Some days they would have some version of Asian cuisine out in the ‘International’ section of the buffet-style serving dishes, but it was still so far from recognizable. Food was something I missed the most from home, and nothing really solved the longing I had. But one day, I had an idea.
On the days when my dining hall put out Asian cuisine, they also had a little tray of Asian condiments available too- soy sauce, chili oil, and sriracha. Off-brand sriracha, but still. So during one lunch time, feeling tired and worn down and no longer caring, I decided to go ahead and just squeeze some on the fried rice I’d gotten. Quite a lot on, actually. A worrying ‘a lot’ on.
It very quickly made a fire in my mouth- but this time, I actually felt good about it. It was a relief from the rest of my longing and frustration, replacing any prior worries of mine with near-comical agony. I was nowhere near pretending that it didn’t hurt, but I felt good about getting past the hurt for once. The spice was a reminder of home, and that made any pain lesser in comparison.
I’m still continuing to find random meals where I make a split decision to slather a portion of my plate in sriracha. It’s becoming more fun now, alongside the reactions of my new friends here. But I try not to do it just to impress or beguile anyone. I doubt I truly gained any more spice tolerance in these past few months, but since it’s becoming one of my main ways to harken back to home-cooked meals and comfort, tolerance doesn’t really matter anymore. All that matters is that I’m here, I haven’t forgotten my roots, and my mouth is on fire.