I need something that is going to tingle, tell me the food is alive. Because I want to be alive, too.
This is,a column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities.
It’s not hot enough. I need to suffer.
In these moments, my pores push out sweat, my heart races, and I do not think about the other things weighing on my heart. I concentrate only on the next bite—not wanting to stop, addicted to the flames scorching the roof of my mouth. Sometimes I can even feel it in my teeth as I grit down, closing my eyes and letting myself simply feel.
If you’ve ever accidentally touched your fingers to your eyes after eating sauce-drenched wings or seeding chilies, you’ve felt that uncomfortable tingle and the burn that follows. After a recent bout of intense crying, I felt nearly the same amount of stinging and scorching in my eyes, but without the benefit of having eaten something good. Crying is cathartic, and eating something that can draw tears is worthwhile to me for the same reason.
Yet I don’t deal well with physical pain. Last fall, when I broke my foot, the pain and shock made me pass out. The pain from hot foods and sauces is something different—much in the way that cooking Korean food has made me feel more connected to my identity, eating spicy foods can serve the same purpose.
I never feel like a whole Korean except around the food; making it as spicy as possible is perhaps both a form of self-flagellation for not being “Korean enough,” and undeniable proof that I am Korean—that I am here, and present, and can feel the truth of it burning my mouth and my heart.
Making Korean food as spicy as possible is both a form of self-flagellation for not being “Korean enough,” and undeniable proof that I am Korean.
It probably seems strange that one of the things I love the most in this world is also something I doctor up to make sure that it hurts me while I eat it. It doesn’t matter if it’s my morning eggs, a giant bowl of pasta, or a sandwich—with almost every meal I cook, I carefully consider which hot sauce or spicy additive I want to put into the dish. Which salsa promises me sweet relief from normalcy? Which brand of hot sauce strikes the right balance between acidic and corrosively painful flavors? This recipe for corn chowder calls for black pepper, but what if I use twenty Thai bird’s-eye chilies instead?
There’s a certain heaviness I feel, simply existing in this world. Sometimes I feel a dread only partially stymied by therapy or medication or quiet moments of reflection. And deep within my body lives a yearning to break out and scream the rage I know is there. I do not often show that I am upset, even when I am—I stuff it down, push it away until it is nothing more than an itch on my skin or a twinge of pain in my neck. These are the feelings I tap into when I seek out spicy food; this is what eating it does for me: When I turn to ever hotter foods, I hurt myself in the only way I can, burning my mouth to spite my heart.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.