How did the star-rating system for spiciness get started?
May 30, 2014 6:57 PM   Subscribe

At almost any Thai restaurant in the U.S., many dishes can be ordered with a specification of how spicy the dish should be. Usually, this is on a scale of four or five stars (with possibly an extra "Thai hot") at the top. I'm curious as to how this tradition got started and why it's primarily associated with Thai food. (And I guess as a side question, whether this phenomenon extends to Thai restaurants outside of the U.S.) I've tried to do some searching myself, but either the info is hard to find, or I haven't found the right search query to separate the wheat from the chaff.

To be slightly more specific, I guess there are two aspects of this that I think are unusual.

One is the notion that you can order pretty much any dish on the menu with varying levels of spiciness. That's not something you'll see in many other styles of restaurant in the U.S. You might have a few dishes that come in several varieties of varying spiciness (a la Buffalo wings), but not usually every dish on the menu. Even with other cuisines noted for spicy dishes. For example, they won't ask you how spicy you want your taco at a Mexican restaurant or your étoufée at a Cajun restaurant, although they might bring you some hot sauce on the side.

The other unusual thing is that they've pretty strongly standardized to using "stars" to rate the spiciness of food at Thai restaurants. Even though there's absolutely no standardization for exactly what three stars specifically means, everybody seems to use stars. Elsewhere you'll typically get some variant on "mild, medium, or hot", but at Thai restaurants, it's almost always always stars.

I'm not so much looking for wild speculation as to how it might've come to pass. I can do that plenty on my own. I'm more looking for historical information about when the practice started, or who started, or when it became hugely popular. That info may or may not be out there, but I figured that if it was, somebody on MetaFilter would know.
posted by ErWenn to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What cities have you eaten Thai food in? In the Boston area I expect to see a scale of 0-2 or 0-3 peppers (when I see a scale at all). I'm not sure I've ever seen stars.

Chinese food menus tend to have a binary "hot or not" notation.

80% of the time I've been asked "how spicy do you want that?" it's been at an Indian restaurant.
posted by dfan at 7:14 PM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've never seen Thai restaurants do this with stars. only cute little chili peppers.
posted by kerning at 7:15 PM on May 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Never seen this in SF or LA.
posted by samthemander at 7:18 PM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've seen stars! And I'm in Minneapolis! More often chili peppers, though. Also the 1-4 or 1-5 numbering system.
posted by Frowner at 7:19 PM on May 30, 2014

I have been asked for a rating from 1-3, 1-4, or 1-5 of how spicy I'd like my food at both Thai and Indian restaurants in southern California, New York, New England, across the midwestern US, and across the southeastern US. This is pretty standard, and I first experienced it in rural Connecticut (after growing up in So Cal, so I don't think this started there). The star aspect I only ever saw in Bloomington, Indiana, though...
posted by amelioration at 7:26 PM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Oh, and FWIW, the Thai restaurant proprietors I ran into in Bloomington, at Esan Thai and Siam House, were definitely from Thailand, *not* by way of So Cal).
posted by amelioration at 7:28 PM on May 30, 2014

Mild-medium-hot-Thai hot is the scale I'm familiar with, both in the US and UK. Never seen stars or numeric scales or a chili pepper scale, though I have seen a single pepper indicate items on the menu that have more heat as a baseline.

Restaurants in Thailand (and better ones in the US) offer a condiment tray, but that's because people who go to those restaurants know how to use the condiments, when they wouldn't have done when Thai restaurants first opened outside Thailand. (This Serious Eats piece is somewhat relevant here.) Because the customers couldn't do the seasoning for heat, the restaurants had to come up with a way of doing it through the ordering process.

There's something slightly in common with the British "curry house" Indian restaurant, where the distinctions between the different curries blur a lot, apart from heat: your average British curry-house patron doesn't think of "vindaloo" in terms of vinegar and ginger, but as "the hotter one". In many places, the same base gravy is used for all of them.
posted by holgate at 7:31 PM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Never seen stars, our local Thai place usually just asked you to express your desired hotness on a scale of 1- 10.
posted by octothorpe at 7:33 PM on May 30, 2014

Second holgate, the most frequent scale I've run into is "mild-medium-hot (or American hot)-Thai hot". This is in the USA, London, Manila, and central Bangkok.
posted by a halcyon day at 7:43 PM on May 30, 2014

Strictly from memory, but the infamous Sri Lanka Curry House on Hennepin in Minneapolis let you ask for a specific level of spiciness back in the 1980s. No matter what you ordered, though, it would arrive "nosebleed hot" (as described by venerable security guru Bruce Schneier himself). More reminiscences, and even more.
posted by gimonca at 7:44 PM on May 30, 2014

Here in Pittsburgh, all of the Thai places I can think of are 1-10, no stars or peppers or any other item, just the number. I'm also used to seeing the same scale at any Indian place I go, I don't think of it as uniquely Thai.
posted by Stacey at 7:48 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's an opportunity for more in-depth research by browsing through online menu collections, such as the one at Los Angeles Public Library. A quick scan of 1980s menus isn't turning up any spiciness stars, but that's only after a quick glance.
posted by gimonca at 7:52 PM on May 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm in Australia and have never seen this. Most Thai places here have no indication on the menu of how hot the food is.
posted by lollusc at 7:52 PM on May 30, 2014

In Thailand, I have to tell them in Thai that I want it really hot and even then I don't ever get it the way I like it until I've been to the same place two or three times. No star system there.
posted by Lame_username at 7:52 PM on May 30, 2014

I've actually seen this more in Indian restaurants in the SF area, usually a 3 point system (not spicy, sorta spicy and spicy). In India they have something called in "indian spicy" too.

I've also seen this at Barbecue places for sauce, again its 3 point scale where the medium is frequently a combination of the spicy and not spicy..

As to how it got started, I'm pretty sure this is something thats spontaneously evolved in a bunch of places and cuisines where "oh shit thats hot" might catch someone unawares.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:03 PM on May 30, 2014

Specifying how spicy you want things with a five-star system at Thai restaurants is fairly universal in Seattle, but I've never noticed in other parts of the U.S.

In the mid 1990s I ate frequently at Thai Kitchen in Austin, which used and uses a system of 0 to 5 chiles on the menu to specify how spicy things are, but no one ever asked me how spicy I wanted things with that scale.
posted by grouse at 8:11 PM on May 30, 2014

In the The Fortune Cookie Chronicles the author describes how a family of Chinese immigrants acquires a Chinese restaurant in Alabama. The restaurant business that they purchase, including menus, recipes, and equipment, is advertised in the back of a Chinese language newspaper targeted towards the immigrant community.

I would not be at all surprised if other immigrant groups in the U.S. known for running restaurants--Thai, Indian, etc.--tend to start their businesses in much the same way. I would also guess that Thai restaurant owners in a specific city or region of the country are likely to acquire menus and things from the same suppliers through networks like the one seen in the Chinese newspaper.

So, I bet a Thai restaurant somewhere started using a spicyness scale, found that it was a success, and it started to become a standard thing on pre-printed Thai menus.
posted by fozzie_bear at 8:33 PM on May 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

I have seen little chilli pepper icons beside items in chain restaurant menus to indicate how spicy something might be so the general concept is not unique to Thai food.

I suspect the star system for rating spiciness in Thai restaurants where you live has come to be for two reasons 1- because your area might not have a lot of locals who were raised in cuisines where spicy food was the norm 2- because Thai restaurants are more popular in your area than other national cuisines with a reputation for heat (various Caribbean and African countries, India, some Eastern European areas). Because of the popularity the restaurants tend to draw people unfamiliar with foods that are hot. Customers would be very unhappy to receive something they could not comfortably eat, and likely complain / refuse to pay / vow not to come back.

I will never forget a conversation I had amongst friends a few years ago. We were discussing spicy food and my boyfriend remarked how much he enjoyed the burn of black pepper. Myself and my other friends (of Caribbean, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds - boyfriend was a white Canadian) were referring to the habaneros, congo peppers, and bird peppers that we ate with our meals to add an extra kick. My anecdote is meant to highlight how hot peppers are very common components to meals in many cuisines outside North America / Western Europe. The hot peppers used in Thai cooking could be very distressing and painful for someone who found black pepper, pickled jalapenos, or "red pepper flakes" hot, and accidentally ate a "normally" seasoned spicy ethnic dish. I don't think a popular local restaurant would want to deal with the fallout of not properly labelling for heat
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 8:36 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've lived in both Bloomington, IN, and the TC, and printed spiciness levels are indeed common -- if not strictly standard -- at Thai restaurants in these locales. In fact, I recall seeing them offered in virtually all Thai restaurants I've eaten at, all around the country. This includes my first exposure to the cuisine (Columbus, OH), in the mid-80s. Like OP, I've not seen this method employed very often at other restaurants that serve foods from "spicy" traditions. (All sorts of places will ask for preferences verbally, however. Just not printed on the menu.)

I wish I could give OP an "official" answer as to why this is, but I doubt that's possible (unless an actual owner of a Thai restaurant gets involved in the thread, maybe). I do have a plausible conjecture, though:

Is it possible that circumstance just happened to initially place people of Thai origin into some of the "blander" regions of the US? Bloomington, for example, is in Southern Indiana, home of the fried pork tenderloin sandwich (AKA "the most gawdamn boring sandwich ever"). I mean, the picture on that link includes way more condiment/garnish excitement than would actually come with the sandwich; it's profoundly bland. But the town is also home to IU, a major university that attracts students from all around the world. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities are home to one of the larger populations of people from Southeast Asia in the whole US, but is also a place with an historically bland palate. My experience of Thai restaurants here is that there's a star/chili rating, the medium of which is also known as "Minnesota Hot," with "Thai Hot" offered verbally for the seasoned veteran. The latter can vary from meh-pretty-hot to dangerously, instantly-stomach-crampingly so (even for someone with an excellent tolerance), depending on the joint or who's on shift that day.

In summary: I'm guessing that owners are aware just how alien this level of spiciness can be to the typical US customer. In my opinion, the peppers/approach to spicing used in SE Asian cuisines are just brutal, relative to say, Central American food. Certainly relative to Taco Bell, which is what most of the country percieves as "hot." The warning is good business sense.
posted by credible hulk at 8:38 PM on May 30, 2014

Stars are fairly common in the Midwest. A small family run Thai place in a strip mall in Cedar Rapids IA had the option of 5 stars (or possible peppers) for each dish. I like decently spicy food, so the first time i was there I asked for Pad Ki Mau, with 3 stars/peppers. The little old Thai lady who was taking my order looked me up and down and, after a beat said, "that's not for you!". I laughed and settled for 2 stars. She was right -- that was plenty hot for me.
posted by jpdoane at 8:57 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

i just ordered thai yesterday from a place in arkansas with 5 stars plus "hot" and "thai hot." I've seen similar in texas, oklahoma, and washington state.
posted by nadawi at 9:00 PM on May 30, 2014

Elsewhere you'll typically get some variant on "mild, medium, or hot", but at Thai restaurants, it's almost always always stars.

Here in Fairbanks, where we have piles of Thai restaurants and not much else (seriously, we must have 15 Thai restaurants, in a metro area of maybe 90,000---can I swap one for an Indian restaurant, please?), folks order mild-medium-hot-thai hot. I've never heard of ordering spiciness by stars.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:22 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised so many people haven't seen/heard of the star thing. Every single asian restaurant in seattle(and olympia, and portland, and i think bellingham. just generally the northwest) goes by this. Or at the very least, every single one i've ever been too, my friends have been to, or i've seen/heard of anyone ordering food from. It's true that there's variation between 3/4/5 star, but they all do the "stars" even if they show them as peppers on the menu or whatever.

It might be regional, but i've asked a similar question before and my parents both remember that in the late 60s, when there were very few chinese or asian food places in town, they had this sytem going even then. I actually just got food tonight at a place that's been operating in the same location since then, and they use that system. I wish i could offer some insight into how it started, but i think it's fairly interesting to know that it was an established thing at most of the places people would order takeout from even 50 years ago.

I'll also concur with the thing about most places having another level of spicyness above five star, most of the time.
posted by emptythought at 10:07 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

In Toronto and I have never seen stars (to me "stars" indicate the quality of something and I would wonder why the restaurant was serving one star Pad Thai). I do see either little peppers (up to three) or else wording mild-medium-hot (and if you ask for hot it then becomes a second question of "Canadian hot" or "back home" hot). I see the peppers or words in most ethnic (including Mexican) restaurants; if they aren't on the menu the server usually asks about desired spiciness.

I grew up with bland UK food (very mild curry was considered spicy). Any restaurant serving UK/Canadian food couldn't add heat without introducing something that would really alter the recipe - like adding ghost peppers to shepherds pie or sprinkling spices on the chips instead of salt or replacing the dressing on Newfie fries with vindaloo.
posted by saucysault at 10:34 PM on May 30, 2014

[One comment deleted. Reminder: please do not include personal information from a member's profile page in your comments or answers.]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:40 AM on May 31, 2014

In DC, I usually see a 1-3 pepper scale (or Thai hot). I've seen it in Chinese and Indian restaurants, also. Even in ethiopian restaurants.
posted by empath at 3:01 AM on May 31, 2014

Thanks for all the anecdata on where the star system actually occurs in the U.S. I'd personally seen it everywhere I've lived (Las Vegas; the Phoenix area; and Bloomington, Indiana), so I sort of presumed it was more-or-less universal to the U.S. Interesting to note that it isn't. It might be interesting to do a study on such things to map it out more thoroughly.

I should note that this isn't about indicating the inherent spiciness of dishes on menus, but about the customer specifying spiciness to the server.

As with some of the commenters, I've occasionally seen the phenomenon in Indian restaurants as well, although I forgot to mention that. And I do consider rating out of a number of peppers to be very similar to a giving a number of stars.

Still hoping for some actual historical perspective, even though I might never find it.

(Incidentally, I have no idea what the deleted comment was, but if it was in reference to the location I listed in my profile, it should be fair game to reference that now, given that I mentioned it in this comment.)
posted by ErWenn at 7:11 AM on May 31, 2014

Oh, I totally misread the question, my apologies! I was so sure it was about actual menus but on rereading it is very clear that it is not.

Recapping, with a focus on your actual topic: in the Boston area, at Thai restaurants, if I get to specify spiciness level at all, it is generally just answering affirmatively to "spicy okay?" Indian restaurants tend to have a wider spectrum ("mild, medium, hot?") but I don't recall it being numerically quantified.
posted by dfan at 7:24 AM on May 31, 2014

I've very rarely ever seen the 0-5 "stars" scale used in a printed menu, but you can almost always (as in, every Thai place I've ever eaten in) use it while ordering and the staff will understand that "1 star" means "mild", "3 star" means "medium", "4 star" is "hot", etc.

My theory is that it's a sort of shorthand used by some restaurants and many guests to get around what might otherwise be a language barrier in describing the level of spiciness that they want. (Cf. ordering by number on many menus.) Especially when ordering takeout over the phone. It's easier to say "pad thai 2-star" than "pad thai, a little spicy but not quite 'medium', just a bit less than that, but not totally mild either".

At restaurants where they don't explicitly use it on the menu I suppose it's one of those things that the staff just learn how to interpret when people order that way, because they've learned from other Thai restaurants that you can order Thai that way. (Which is how I learned to do it, having never seen it on the menu, but when I first had Thai takeout in highschool, somebody told me that what I was eating was "pad thai three star" and for years, that's what I would order from anywhere I went, because, well, that's what I was used to and it always came out okay.)

I'd put it down as a sort of mostly-emergent group behavior on the part of Thai restaurant patrons more than something actually done by Thai restaurant owners themselves. Some restaurants might actually prefer a less-granular system (0-3 maybe) but they have to deal with people calling in and using the 5-star system regardless.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:05 AM on May 31, 2014

I have seen Thai menus with the star rating system, the chili pepper rating system, and the simple mild-medium-hot system.


One of the earliest Thai restaurants (1959) in the US still exists in Denver, CO: Chada Thai. Their online menu has no indication whatsoever of heat levels.

One of the first Thai restaurants (1967) in London, Bangkok Restaurant, also has no heat-rating system on their online menu.
posted by jammy at 10:52 AM on May 31, 2014

I've seen stars, little chili peppers and number scales. One place I like doesn't print the scale, the little lady running the place just asks "1, 2, 3, 4, or Thai hot?" She's always happy when you order Thai hot.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:12 PM on May 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've only seen the chili pepper rating system in Vancouver, Canada.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:16 PM on May 31, 2014

When I was in grad school at UW-Madison my ex, who lived in Milwaukee, and I ate Thai all the time (in Milwaukee and less so in Madison) and every restaurant had the same star system but it was 1, 2, 3, or "native Thai" as I recall. This was in the late 80s and early 90s. We'd order everything with "two stars." I remember this very well.

Chaussette, the "chili pepper rating system," which is absolutely in practice in Calgary too, just tells you how hot the dish is. The one OP is describing is for you to specify how hot you WANT the dish to be.

And as we've all discovered, it seems to be a US Midwestern thing, not universal and not extant anywhere in Canada (Toronto does the same thing Vancouver and Calgary do).
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:49 PM on June 1, 2014

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