My Life as a Spice Sissy


My Life as a Spice Sissy

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I was five, my grandad would cry a lot.

“Why is Dadu sad,” I would ask my mother in hushed tones, as tears streamed down his face and he sniffed and panted as he ate. He overheard me and turned toward me with his tongue lolling outside his mouth.

“I’m not sad, I’m happy! Here eat this and you’ll know,” he said, offering me a morsel. Being a child who’d never met food he didn’t want to instantly gobble, I quickly shoved it in my mouth. Big mistake. As I bit into the chicken, the gravy and juices coated my tongue, and my mouth was on fire. Panic struck me. The more I chewed, the more it seemed to stoke the flames. I chowed it down desperately, hoping for some relief, but even as the morsel slid down my throat, it left a trail of ashes behind.

I began to cry and I leaned back in my chair and exhaled furiously, trying to cool the heat within. Around the table, my family laughed and cheered on my baptism by fire.

I was the newest member of my spice junkie family.

After my trial by fire, I realised that nothing in my family kitchen was deemed tasty enough until it was quite literally buried under a mountain of lal mirch.

I grew up in a Rajput household in Mumbai that tried to bring little bit of the homeland to the city via the kitchen every day. I didn’t mind my indoctrination into the Thakur culture as long as it involved listening to the histories of the Ranas and their battles, or stories about holidays to the village, but these endevaours in the kitchen unnerved me.

After my trial by fire, I realised that nothing in my family kitchen was deemed tasty enough until it was quite literally buried under a mountain of lal mirch. I’m talking about blow-your-face-off spiciness that makes the skin melt on your face. My family thrived on it, but for some reason I was born without the spice gene.

My tryst with spice went from being a source of amusement for my family to a source of shame. I was chided, bribed, and scolded into developing a tolerance for spice like a true Rajput. But no matter how many times I was teased, I just couldn’t handle the spices.

I have tried to explain to them that spicy food need not necessarily equate to tasty food. Capsaicin, the compound that triggers a sensation of hot food, does not react with your taste buds at all. Instead, it reacts with the VR1 thermoreceptors in our tongue and mouth. Evolution put the VR1 receptors there so that our body could signal our monkey brain that what we were eating was going to burn our mouth. It’s the same set of nerve endings that make you spit out your sugary tea when it’s too hot. There’s no delicate play of flavours here – capsaicin skips the foreplay with your taste buds and goes doggy style with your nervous system, by tricking it into thinking your mouth is on fire.

Of course, similar to other pursuits that involve self-inflicted harm, capsaicin has developed a community of fiends ravenous for the next fix. This breed of spice junkies, like my family, like to think their predilection for Satan-flavoured food makes them somehow tougher than other mortals and their kids grow up believing them. So in classrooms and playgrounds, you’ll always have that kid who boasts about how he can eat more chillies than the next guy. My teacher once brought a wickedly curved, pungent, green chilly to class, threatening to make the most badly behaved boy of the day eat it. Naturally, some wannabe badass chose to chomp on it in front of the class when the teacher stepped outside. I don’t know what he was thinking, but the results definitely didn’t scale the heights of swag he was aiming for. He screeched and ran in circles around a desk, began begging for people’s water bottles, and licked the cream from his snack biscuits like a badly trained lapdog.

I found it ridiculous but that’s the ironic thing about these spice junkies. They think crying like you’ve been delivered the news of your family’s death or panting like you’ve reached the end of a 100-km marathon is the epitome of coolness.

It’s been 15 years now since the day of my baptism and my family has begun to make peace with the fact that I will never be the proud bearer of their spice tradition. I will, however, be the torchbearer for my brothers and sisters who need a little dahi to cut the spiciness of a dal tadka, and the ones who have to remind their pani-puriwallah about “teekha kum, meetha zyaada” chutney. We may be at the receiving end of the spice junkies’ scorn when we place our order, but I promise you this, the next morning, when it’s time to sit on the pot, the spice junkies wish they ate like us.