One day this past week, my fiancé and I went to Lotus Grill, a Chinese eatery that is near where I work. A few weeks back, the owner’s son had given us a Chinese menu, which is a little different than the standard American menu that is on the wall next to the cash register/ordering area and the printed menus out on the counter. My fiancé and I have gotten to know the owner and her son, and we are pretty frequent visitors.
I decided to try one of the items on the Chinese menu. Since we can’t read Chinese, I asked him to recommend something spicy with chicken in it. He recommended what I would best call Hot Pepper Chicken Version 1, mainly because it differs from the version on the restaurant’s American menu. The dish has chicken, jalapeno peppers, green onion, Napa cabbage, bok choy, mushrooms, and ginger with a sauce made from soy, peppercorns, and vinegar. Needless to say it is very savory, salty, and FLAMING HOT.
Below is a picture of what I ate (mind you, I’d eaten nearly half of it already, but I wanted to at least give you a visual):
This might surprise you, coming from an Aspie. Or it might not. I’ve encountered other Aspies talk about their sensory issues with food, and I’ve seen all different kinds of responses about what others can and cannot tolerate. I don’t have many sensory issues involving food except that I tend to dislike anything with an overly mushy texture (hence, I hate liver). But I LOVE spicy food.
I think that I grew up liking spicy food partially due to my mother’s adventurous nature, my father’s influence and genetics (this is a man who would only eat fried chicken or fish with hot sauce), and the various places we lived where ethnic cuisine was available. In Phoenix we were able to eat authentic Mexican food and in Flagstaff, we lived not too far from an Indian-owned restaurant serving both American food and Indian food. I remember trying chicken curry when I was about seven and loving it. Then when I left high school to study for my undergraduate degree, I encountered more ethnic cuisine and spicier food. Throughout my travels and after I moved to Columbus, I tried more and more types of cuisine. I suspect I inherited my mother’s adventurousness which is why I will try almost anything that won’t either poison me or bite me back.
I would also suppose that loving spicy food would almost be a prerequisite if you are engaged to or married to someone from an area of the world with spicy cuisine. The best term I could use for my fiancé is hapa – his father is from Andhra Pradesh state in India and his mother is of primarily German ancestry – so he grew up eating Indian food, especially South Indian food (which in and of itself tends to be spicier than North Indian). So after we started dating and he offered to take me to a local Indian restaurant, I was ALL over it, of course. While I was unable to eat much of his Chicken Vindaloo (which at the spice level he ordered it was about a level eight and a half if ten is the spiciest, and that was even a bit much for me), I had no problem with my own dish and was intrigued by the whole experience. A few weeks later, he taught me how to make basic South Indian chicken curry and after that, I was hooked.
Now, fast-forward to today. My lips tingled after my encounter with the Hot Pepper Chicken Version 1. And I loved it.
Sensation Seeking: Masochism, Information Gathering, or Something Else?
My experiences might seem contrary to some modern notions of autism, such as the “intense world” theory: one might reason that I would HATE spicy food or generally be unable to tolerate it. But I have a few ideas about how my love of extremely spicy food is possible. As I’ve said before in other posts on this blog, most of my particular sensory issues are not food-related: mine are either more tactile (I dislike extremely light touch or scratchy clothes), visual (I don’t do well under florescent lighting for extended periods of time), or auditory (sudden, piercing loud noises like sirens or shrieking babies literally hurt my ears). So my relative lack of sensory troubles in the gustatory department probably allows me for both greater tolerance of spicy food as well as a greater tendency to enjoy eating it. Also, I think sometimes sensitivity in the sensory department might cause an Aspie to gravitate towards certain sensations, even if this seems strange or counterintuitive to outsiders. As I am writing, I remember Kirana Cowansage, the young woman interviewed for this article in Psychology Today about Aspergian women, discussing her particular experiences with sensation and feeling:
”At the age of 9, Kiriana, ever the scientist, asked her mother, ‘Does everyone see, hear, smell, taste, and feel exactly the same thing when they perceive the same object?’ Around that same time, she developed a feverish curiosity about the medical experimentation the Nazis conducted during the Holocaust. ‘All my obsessions related to something profoundly catastrophic,’ she says. ‘I have a really hard time feeling emotionally aroused. Brutal, violent, scary things were interesting to me because that was the best way to feel something.’
In a similar effort to manufacture emotions, Kiriana found it exciting to jog through her high school’s murky backwoods at midnight in the snow wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and sockless sneakers.”
That image of the young woman jogging in the snow in only a T-shirt, shorts, and sockless sneakers came to mind and made me wonder about what seems to be a paradox in this Aspergian experience – on one hand, some sensations and stimuli might be too much, while on the other hand, one might try to “amp up” the sensation to feel something … some sort of intensity, perhaps.
And then I thought about my sensations and emotions when I eat spicy food. I do know that when I eat a flaming hot dish, I feel more alive somehow. The tongue burns, the lips tingle, the throat screams, and the whole experience feels more real. I’ve been known to douse my fried fish in hot sauce, order the hottest wings on the menu, and try to eat pork ribs with drenched in nuclear hot rib sauce to get this effect. Over at Lotus Grill, the owner’s son knows that we dig spicy food and has started making recommendations off the menu. And in the dining room where I work, while my coworkers complain that the spice level of the chili at lunch is too high, I complain that it’s not spicy enough. And all to produce that zest, that zing, that feeling of being alive and on fire.
A brief aside: I don’t know how many of you are Enneagram aficionados, I’ll tell you that a desire for intensity and deep feeling is common to an Enneagram Type Four individual like myself (Sevens might also crave intensity in their search to feel stimulated as well as to find new and novel experiences, according to the folks over at Enneagram Explorations). It’s been my experience that the need for intensity and deep feeling can include both positive and negative sensations and emotions. Hence, it’s a possible additional explanation of why I love the tingle in my lips and the burn in my throat when I chow down on wings with Blazin’ sauce or the aforementioned Hot Pepper Chicken. But I digress.
Modern Epicureanism and the Aspie Mind
I used the word Epicureanism in the title of this post in the strictly modern sense. What I understand of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism is that “pleasure is the greatest good” – but the way to attain said pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires, which lead to a state of tranquility and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain. This is NOT the Epicureanism I speak of. I do admit that I am intrigued at the idea of gaining knowledge about the workings of the world and being an Aspergian with an analytical mind and a fascination for the inner workings of things, these ideas appeal to me. However, the ancient Epicurean way emphasizes pleasures of the mind rather than pleasures of the body — and since I am a sucker for both, I would probably not make a very good ancient Epicurean.
Now, I would definitely consider myself a modern Epicurean, if an Epicurean at all. Part of the reason I indulge in physical pleasures at times is to gather information. Again, I have to consider that my analytical Aspie mind is at work here, and everything I’ve sensed also gets stored in a databank in my brain along with any academic, factual, visual, or other information I take in. Ask me about eels, and I might tell you that they’re fascinating and somewhat frightening creatures as well as the fact that they have a mild flavor when barbecued (my apologies to the vegetarians and vegans in the audience). Ask me about hip hop and rap music, and I would probably give you the history of the music from its roots in the 1970’s through its development in the 80’s and 90’s – but I would also tell you my favorite artists as well as the memories evoked by the music and how the music itself feels and looks to me. While I don’t experience true synesthesia, I do see colors and patterns in my brain when the music is playing: A Tribe Called Quest evokes loud, animated splashes of color while Public Enemy evokes mostly thick, black lines with some white and gray lines and dots.
So ask me about spicy food, and I might tell you about India or the difference between North and South Indian cuisine. I might mention once reading about a dish from South India that calls for 25 green chili and is only eaten during festival season, or how religion influences Indian cuisine (namely the lack of beef in recipes from India whereas you find it more in Pakistani recipes). I might even go as far as to talk about capsaicin, the molecule in chili peppers that makes them so hot. But I would also tell you how I love my lips to tingle, my throat to burn, and how I can still taste the other spices past all of the heat. I might even tell you that I like the mild pain associated with the burn. And I will tell you that those experiences are in my databanks which I pull from, compare, and contrast every other experience with spicy food that I have.
But most of all, I will tell you that when I burn my lips and tongue with spice, I feel alive.
Of Spice, Epicureanism, and Masochism: Confessions of an Aspergian Food Lover appears here by permission.
Nicole Nicholson’s soon-to-be published collection of poems is titled Novena.
[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]