How to get some HEAT in my Chinese food
September 27, 2014 3:44 PM   Subscribe

I live in an extremely whitebread town, and nothing I have done has induced any of the Chinese restaurants to make my food in the least hot. I say "extra hot" or "extra spicy" or "with hot peppers" and the food seems exactly the same. They must have had people complain that what they ordered was "too hot." What can I say in Chinese to get the point across? How do you say the pepper paste stuff that is made out of pepper flakes and oil, and then lots of it?
posted by ackptui to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of Chinese food isn't even supposed to be spicy. For example, most Cantonese dishes are pretty mildly spiced. You can always just ask them for some hot sauce to douse your food with if you really must eat it spicy.
posted by pravit at 3:50 PM on September 27, 2014 [18 favorites]

Well, if it's Sichuan cuisine, you can say "má là" which means "numbing and spicy", I think.

If I go to place and I want my, say, cumin lamb nice and numbing, I just try to tell them "ma la" and try to let them know to turn up the heat.
posted by Fortran at 3:54 PM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just buy a jar of Indonesian Sambal olek and jazz up whatever they serve you. You can also make it yourself. Buy a heap of red chiles and chop them up in a blender with salt and a dash of vinegar. Or if you want to suffer for your indulgence, use a stone mortar (I have. It works).

More effective yet is to chop up a bunch of Thai Chiles with seeds and all and take them along in a plastic bag.
posted by Namlit at 4:05 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you're looking for chili oil. I've never been to a chinese restaurant that wouldn't bring as much as I wanted as a side for free.
posted by cosmac at 4:07 PM on September 27, 2014

You can always send it back. If it's got three chiles next to it in the menu, and you ask for extra spicy, and it's not, send it back to the kitchen until they get it right.

If you do that, and then tip *really* well, you'll probably be set for life at that place.
posted by colin_l at 4:15 PM on September 27, 2014

Ask for the other menu. There usually is one.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:31 PM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

The oily paste is (much better and) not the same as the crushed chilis that I've seen in most Chinese restaurants that offer chili paste. Also, based on the word whitebread, I'm picturing the sort of restaurant that may not have any kind of paste. (packets of duck sauce and hot mustard?) Likewise, if I'm picturing the venue correctly, they don't have "the other menu"

I sometimes have a little bit of luck just saying, "I want it really, really, really, really, really spicy".

I've thought of bringing my own fresh peppers and asking them to use them.

Curious to try "ma la" sometime.
posted by spbmp at 5:26 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

you can ask for "ma la", or say "fei chang la" (extremely spicy) (and hope they understand Mandarin) but as the first poster noted lots of Chinese food is not spicy at all- it's highly dependent on region. So you might want to find out where the people are from that are making the food. Lots of Chinese immigrants are from the south of China, where food is typically mild, not spicy at all and it'd be pretty weird to want to spice food up from there a whole bunch.

Because Sichuan food, which is spicy, is popular, it is often made at Chinese restaurants in the US too but the people making are not necessarily from that area, so it also may not be that spicy when they make it.
posted by bearette at 5:49 PM on September 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

also I want to note that "ma la" is a very specific kind of flavoring that is only used for certain kinds of Chinese food, and they may not have the ingredients for it, nor would it make sense at all on southern chinese food.
posted by bearette at 5:53 PM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

As pravit and others mentioned, spiciness is not a defining characteristic of Chinese cuisine as a whole. What often passes for "Chinese" in America is generally a Cantonese (southern, not spicy) menu that has been modified to suit American tastes. Spicy lo mein or mushu pork, for example, wouldn't very much sense. It's like going to Morton's steakhouse and asking for your steak to be spicy. It is a bit curious to me that you are complaining about a lack of spiciness.

Of the Chinese cuisines that do feature spiciness, Sichuan and Hunan are the ones that you'll most likely find in America. So if you want spicy food, check the menu for terms like "Sichuan beef" or "Hunan pork". You also might look for dishes like mapo tofu or kung pao chicken.

I don't know if Chinese speakers are actually running this restaurant, but since you don't speak any, you might be better off showing them the words instead of trying to pronounce them. So:

辣 (là in Mandardin, laat6 in Cantonese) is "hot/spicy".
麻辣 (málà in Mandarin, maa4 laat6 in Cantonese) is the numbing hot of certain Sichuan dishes such as ma po, but they may not have the Sichuan peppercorns for making this taste. It is also a very distinctive taste and may not suit you even if you otherwise like spicy food.
辣油 (làyóu in Mandarin, jau4 laat6 in Cantonese) is chili oil.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:01 PM on September 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

Incidentally, chili oil is really easy to make. My family runs a Chinese restaurant (a fairly Americanized one, by necessity, in a smallish town in the southern US) and I think we pretty much food-process bulk dried chilies into flakes and mix it with oil. Maybe we cook them together a little bit, I can't quite remember. But if you made your own, or asked them to sell it to you separately, you could add it to your taste.

Nthing the already well-expressed "Cantonese food is not actually that hot" part (if that is indeed the background of the cooks at your restaurants). The Cantonese style is characterized by well-balanced, even often delicate flavors made by combining fresh, high-quality ingredients and letting them shine. Overwhelming those flavors with a preponderance of just one flavor, hot, isn't really what they're going for. It's not that there aren't spicy dishes, and there's nothing wrong with liking what you like. If you build a relationship with them they should be able to make things to your taste--we always did for our regular friendly customers, some of whom had much more unusual requests--but it might take some patience and friendly respectful persistence, that's all.

Tanizaki's probably got the best approach! If you really want to try talking to them instead, if they speak Cantonese, they might respond well to "ho laht" (very spicy/hot/burning; emphasis on the 'ho'), maybe repeated a few times for emphasis. Make sure they don't think you're saying "whole lot."
posted by spelunkingplato at 7:09 PM on September 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Do you want Thai maybe instead? If so, and/or if any of these places are run by Thai people (not unheard of, in whitebread places) tell them Thai hot.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:44 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Tanizaki's suggestion of trying to order Sichuan and Hunan inspired food. It might be worth acquainting yourself with how these foods are made, so that you can easier sport if it will be spicy.
Red chili bean paste, or dried or fresh chilis, or chili paste are common in spicy dishes. Check out guides to spicy chinese food to develop and eye for what to order (or make at home)
posted by troytroy at 1:24 AM on September 28, 2014

Do you think that they don't understand the word "spicy"? Unless they actually don't speak English, I'm not sure why translating it into Chinese would help you out here.

I mean, how whitebread are we talking here? Is it possible they don't put chilis in anything, and therefore don't actually have any?
posted by geegollygosh at 6:07 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

spelunkingplato: "Incidentally, chili oil is really easy to make. My family runs a Chinese restaurant (a fairly Americanized one, by necessity, in a smallish town in the southern US) and I think we pretty much food-process bulk dried chilies into flakes and mix it with oil. Maybe we cook them together a little bit, I can't quite remember. But if you made your own, or asked them to sell it to you separately, you could add it to your taste.""

What kind of oil? Olive? Sesame? Vegetable?
posted by 724A at 6:57 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get some of this: Shichimi, at any oriental food store or on the web. Google Nanami Togarashi. This has the virtue of adding flavorful heat to anything, without oil or vinegar, as in most hot sauces. When it's empty, refill the very convenient little bottle with powered chili pepper and carry it around in your pocket. I have several, and soak off the labels and refill with ground homegrown habanero and chili powder blends of my own.
posted by lathrop at 1:27 PM on September 28, 2014

I wouldn't bring in outside condiments. If a restaurant is worth eating at in the first place, I would be mortified by a companion bringing in food not offered by the restaurant. Like, I'd apologize to the waiter and tip extra on their behalf.

It's possible this is an overreaction, but I've never even heard of someone doing this.
posted by cmoj at 2:57 PM on September 28, 2014

I don't think you want to say anything in Chinese. I think you want to explain what you want beyond saying "make that spicy, please."
posted by J. Wilson at 6:56 PM on September 28, 2014

724A: I think my parents probably used plain "vegetable" oil, just because that's what they would have had around. Olive oil's flavor would probably get lost in the chili, and it's more expensive. I looked up a few recipes: here's a very simple one along the lines of the sort of thing you'll get at many 'whitebread town' chinese restaurants (although I don't think we took out the seeds); here's a slightly fancier one with more ingredients, including Szechuan peppercorns.

cmoj: Oh gosh, I had assumed the OP was talking about takeout, I think because a lot of these kind of places specialize in it, and to many of their customers "Chinese food" and "takeout" are synonymous. That, and the way they phrased their question asking about the chili oil made it sound like they weren't able to just ask for this condiment to be brought out where they could add it themselves.

You're right--bringing your homemade hot sauce into a sit-down restaurant and whipping it out at the table would be weird, and rude. Only try this at home, kids!
posted by spelunkingplato at 10:44 PM on September 28, 2014

When I go Thai, I tell them make it hot, and forget I'm a white boy.
posted by PlutoniumX at 7:35 AM on September 29, 2014

Oh gosh, I had assumed the OP was talking about takeout

Oh, right... takeout. Didn't even occur to me. In that case... Sriracha is the easiest and most universally accepted answer.
posted by cmoj at 8:48 AM on September 29, 2014

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