by Sheba Anyanwu
“How spicy would you like your food?” the waitress asked, eyeing me as I lift my spoon with chili paste to my lips, shoving it into my mouth, registering the taste of pepper. Yeah, this is definitely not as hot as atorodo. I say to myself.
Content that somehow I had one-upped the Thai food game, with my pre-existing history and contact with hotter grades of pepper, by default of being Nigerian. Definitely almost lost an eye to atarodo (local name for cayenne pepper) when I was living in Lagos. Cut pepper for my mum (stage 1), used same hand to eye to wipe my eye ( stage 2) felt like dying ( stage 3).
She winces, jotting the words down rapidly. “Are you sure, miss? Our food here tends to be really spicy.” I narrow my eyes at her. I have been here before. My track record is clean, having eaten my way through hole-in-the-wall Thai food spots in New York, I felt that it was unnecessary for me to go through what I had found to be this preliminary process of foreigner vs. ethnic, a process I had gone through with ease. A process of elimination. She was checking to see if I would pass the test. The igbo woman in me puffs her chest out. I be area for here now. I am about that life.
“I’m Nigerian, we eat spicy food all the time,” I bite back. She nods, as though she has had this conversation with someone like me before. As though she would emerge winner after her famous last words- Miss, are you sure? Jotting down a large plus sign on her notepad, she asks if that will be all, to which I nod, and she hurries to the kitchen, filling a few jugs on her way there, like a Gretel leaving crumbs on her way home. Having a bit of time to reflect on the situation, I panic.
What if she asks the cook to add more pepper than I can handle? You know, just to “show me pepper” for thinking I can handle Thai pepper? Was I rude? Or Arrogant? I mean I really was Nigerian, and I really had tasted food spicier than most Thai food I had eaten in New York. Would it have been okay if I lied?
The feeling that I may have offended someone, and that retributive justice due me by a universe that sometimes functioned like a Nigerian movie, where small grievances such as mine, would be irredeemably punished, where wrong would not go unpunished, perhaps until part three or part four of the movie, was a possibility right now. That somehow, I could be punished for exercising my ethnic right to extra spicy food with pepe (pepper).
“You’re being dramatic,” my friend comments. “Highest (Nigerians say this, as though unfortunate events are finite), the cook hacks your curry chicken and we’ll just take you to the hospital,” he continued. He gently adorns his chicken satay with Siracha, picking them up intricately with chop sticks.
“You’re right,” I answer, confident in America and her ability to cart people away at the sign of illness or accident. Ambulances screaming through congested traffic, people pulling their cars to the right, a chariot on fire with the ailing patient laid on a stretcher, an $800 cheque mailed to his or her house… eventually.
“Abrasive about what?” I interject. “It’s honestly just pepper, like who really cares about this stuff! I always feel like I’m being tested every time I get Thai food, do I look like a foreigner to these people?”
“One pineapple basil fried rice extra spicy and one curry chicken soup extra spicy for you.” An interjection, from heaven or hell. I’m not sure. But I know, I will find out when I taste the food in front of me.
“Thank you,” I reply. Picking up the chop sticks in front of me, I practice the finger positions and movements I had learnt a while ago. Hunger trumps cultural nuance, so I put them down and unfold the napkin, dragging the fork out. Probably against it’s will, too, because as I dip it into my curry panang, blowing a little bit at the spoon, swallowing the hot liquid, I can feel the heat searing into my skin.
I pick the spoon up again, and slide it into my mouth. A tapered tongue recoils, feeling the pepper cloud my throat, and the familiar comfort, like a cousin who reminds you of home, the taste settles in my mouth to my stomach. All the while, your eyes are narrowed, watching me.
Leaving the restaurant, with small sniffles and a knowing smile on our faces, yeah that food was spicy, I recognize the small happiness we share in that moment. One where we could opt to eat something so far away from us, but be bonded, if not brought together with a culture unlike ours by sheer force of spice, life…pepper. Something that seemed to be lacking in a land filled with so much food, one would leave feeling more fat than gastronomically satisfied. It made me, and you, and the people like us who were far away from home reach for siracaha bottles, Jerk spice, cayenne pepper, extra spicy beef patties, in grocery stores, like these things were treasures which would run out if we were not careful. The coughing some of my ethnically ambivalent friends experienced, visiting my apartment when I cooked for them, their nostrils flaring from the kaleidoscope of smoke, curries, and pepper. The small frown that appears on my face being at events and reaching into chicken with the sweetness stopping at the surface, the fleshy white part deprived of all spice and circumstance. I knew I was not the only one who felt this way. I knew I was not alone in this experience.