jerk chicken and laksa

on savoriness (3)

over the past few months, i’ve been having a conversation—mostly with myself—about spiciness. i’m not really looking for an answer.

in Jamaican cuisine, your meal’s heat is overstated. for the uninitiated, a chicken that’s truly been jerked can taste incendiary, or life-changing, even—at least for a little while. my parents used to throw a lot of parties, and all of those parties had food, and my mom spent hours beforehand in the kitchen, blanching and heating and chopping protein after protein.

she’d add the pepper and the chilies and the marinades early. gave them time to sit. but it still never made sense to me that the heat, an unworldly thing, was the result. and i never thought i’d get used to it. and i didn’t see how she could—let alone an entire island of people, the community that i came from.

but the heat, and how you approached it, was the answer to a sort of question—among some parts of my fam, your spice tolerance came down to what kind of person you were. like, what you were worth. most of the men in my extended family made tiny spectacles of who could withstand how much heat. and most of the women indulged them that, knowing all the while that those dudes’ staminas were middling, in comparison to their own, at best.

as a kid without a super-developed West Indian spice palette to speak of (left to my own devices, all i ate was pork katsu and enchiladas), this looked otherworldly to me, fucking unreal. my fam tamed the heat in a way that i could hardly articulate. sometimes, at the parties they threw, my mom made several iterations of each dish herself—but she was very intentional about who got what pieces. she’d tone the pork way way way way way down for our white neighbors. other family friends—Cubans, Iranians, Filipinos—were given the pieces soaked in curry and sopping with juices, a slightly more scalding blend (this was the pot i pulled from).

but the Jamaicans, patrolling the kitchen and monitoring everyone’s portions, ate at the very end, pulling their pieces from the pot lodged on the back burner. i’d watch the women laugh while the rest of us fanned ourselves, and their husbands boasted over dominoes. they tamed entirely unimaginable flames without qualms, grinning at everyone else the whole fucking time.

*

years later, i took a guy i’d been seeing to this Jamaican place around the Third Ward.

i ordered for both of us. asked about his spice tolerance, and he told me it was “commendable”. the restaurant we went to has since closed, and the lady who managed everything—cooking and taking orders and handling a drive-thru window—was mostly curt (there’s a common motif that this is usually an indicator of quality Jamaican food), but she was nothing but warm when she brought the food to our table. she almost treated it like a sort of gifting: she was letting us into her world, even if only briefly. and each meal’s spice was a sort of penance. and here we were, accepting it.

the guy i’d brought took a first bite of his meal. and then a second. and then a third. i remember asking him to slow down. but i also remember him waving me off, and our matron smiled his way, momentarily impressed (but still—she knew).

that’s when the heat hit him. one of the last conversations we had was him fanning himself, and then dunking water over his lips. i blushed across the table, cracking my knuckles. and our host watched from the counter, just shaking her head.

until the restaurant finally closed, whenever i came back around, she’d ask me about this guy. she called him “my friend”: how was he doing? did he enjoy his meal? she hadn’t seen him in a while, when was i bringing him back?

*

(even still, it goes both ways: when i told another friend about this, he made a face over video chat that i could almost hear—then he reminded me, swiftly, about how i’d made the same mistakes eating out with him, diving face-first into buldak and sundubu and ddeokbokki without respecting their heat, while our waiters laughed silently behind us.)

*

but the same way that heat can tear you apart, it can also bring folks together. or at least i think it can. there’s something to be said about managing a flavor, and then taming it, and then manipulating it. i think of the women in my old house, laughing around the pot. i think of the matrons taking time with their stews and their soups and their cauldrons.

a few weeks back, i was in Sydney, eating at this Malaysian place just outside of Chinatown. the restaurant’s host greeted us, and then she stood by our table, and then she asked how i wanted my noodles, and i told her i wanted them spicy. she asked me how spicy—regular or hot. i asked what hot meant to her. she said, with a straight-face: “hot means hot”.

so i went for the hot laksa.

it was definitely spicy.

but i wasn’t a kid anymore, and the heat didn’t fold me in half.

eventually, the host returned to my table. she asked how i was doing, tipping around the question. but i told her i was fine. i told her the heat was great. and then she asked if it could’ve been hotter, and i said that it could.

and then, out of nowhere, a smile crossed her face.

and then, even further from the same place, she gave me a tiny, one-armed hug.

she said, “good.”

then she said, “we have the same heat”.

and that left me entirely speechless. but we both wore the biggest fucking smiles.

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