The Chinawoman

My mother calls me a Chinawoman. And it’s not just her.

“Not too much chili, please. This Chinawoman cannot tahan too spicy!” broadcasts my auntie.

“Like this also you call spicy, ah? Chinawoman lah you,” teases my friend.

To them, people from China have no tolerance for spicy food. To them, a Chinawoman goes to a curry mee stall and ends up ordering clear soup noodles. To them, a Chinawoman eats her popiah with no chili sauce. Therefore, Chinawoman and I… we’re comrades.

Four years ago, I left for Beijing with that impression in mind. Little did I know that the land of Peking duck turns out to have a fiery appetite for this thing called mala huoguo, a boiling cauldron of bright red broth with a layer of dried chilies floating on top. It literally means numb and spicy hotpot and is certainly something that “Chinawoman” should avoid. A sniff of the acrid fumes coming out of the bubbling lava is enough to send any Chinawoman coughing til her eyes water.

So for the first year I was in China, I stayed away from any of the mala stuff. However, all these spicy hotpot restaurants are as ubiquitous as kopitiams are back home, and they are always packed. Everyone seems to enjoy eating their sliced lamb and pig’s brain and cuttlefish balls out of the chili broth. And these are local Chinese people, who I thought had the same “Chinawoman genes” like me. So what happened to the Chinese-people-can’t-eat-spicy-food theory?

I began to observe this baffling phenomenon. Most Chinese, it seems, are eating even spicier stuff than Malaysians. Shui zhu yu or “fish cooked in water” is big bowl of oil with slices of fish in it and a sea of dried chili floating on top. La zi ji ding or “spicy diced chicken” consists of tiny pieces of fried chicken buried under a pile of fried chili peppers. Qing jiao niu wa or “bullfrog with green chili” is a huge bowl with bullfrog meat submerged in oil with green chilies and fresh green peppercorn. Sounds harmless but it’s enough to send the spice-o-meter up the roof.

As I quietly cook my meat on the clear soup side of the hotpot, my Chinese friends would tackle the fiery red broth on the other side. And as we eat, the usual comments would crop up.

“And you call yourself Malaysian? I thought you guys eat spicy stuff and curry all the time.”
Most Malaysians. Just not me.

“You are Malaysian! Come on, how can this be spicy?”

I find myself in an identity crisis. In Malaysia, my zero tolerance for spicy food categorized me as typical Chinawoman. In China, I get dismissed for being such a weakling amongst the chili oil-guzzling, Sichuan cuisine fans.

It’s about time I bust some myths on this issue. First of all, the “China” that our mothers and grandmothers refer to points to the southern provinces of Guangdong or Fujian where most of the Malaysian Chinese population emigrated from. The cuisine from this region has a blander and subtler taste than other parts of China, with chili playing a very small role in Cantonese cooking. Therefore, “Chinamen” and “Chinawomen” have a very low tolerance for chili. And as you move further north, preference for stronger tastes becomes the norm. In provinces such as Sichuan, Hunan and Shaanxi, tell the cook not to add chili in the cooking and you’ll end up eating plain rice.

Spicy food has become such an 'in' thing nowadays that it’s almost like wearing Gucci or LV – whether you are a millionaire tai-tai or a hawker stall auntie, you have to be seen having one. Indian restaurants in Hong Kong, Sichuan eateries in Beijing, and even curry noodle shops in Ipoh are tipping the scales in terms of popularity.

For Malaysians who can’t eat spicy food, you might as well wear a “loser” banner around your necks as you sit next to the cool crowd slurping curry laksa in the coffee shop. I, on the other hand, will be joining my comrades at the hotpot joint. Two dips in clear soup and one dip in mala soup. What can I say, we all need some extra spice in our life.

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