A Traitor at the Dinner Table

My Taste in Foods Is Positively Un-American

It all started with Hungarian food. That’s what I was raised on, good Magyar chow cooked by my mother and my great-grandmother Lidia Toth. Along the way, I also started to like American food, particularly hamburgers and hot dogs.

But then something happened when I came out to Southern California. It started with Mexican food. When I lived in Santa Monica, there was a Mexican buffet around Wilshire and 12th Street called Castillo’s. One of the girls behind the steam table was quite cute, and I remember eating there and ogling her.

That was only the beginning. Then I moved to Mississippi Avenue between Sawtelle and Corinth, which was in the middle of a small Japanese neighborhood. I dined regularly at the Osho Restaurant and the Futaba Cafe. When my miso soup has tofu in it, I naively thought they were cut-up shark fins. Before long, I was eating sushi—despite the fact that, while I lived in Cleveland, I saw fish only as dead things that floated on the surface of polluted Lake Erie.

When I worked at Urban Decision Systems at Santa Monica Blvd and Barrington Avenue, we frequently ate Chinese food at the Sun Kwong Restaurant, which was a very high quality Cantonese place. But then Szechuan cuisine invaded, plus I became a chili-head whereas before I went for bland foods. My tastes kept developing to such an extent that my parents—God rest their souls!—thought that I had betrayed my Hungarian heritage.

Well, it’s still with me, along with a whole lot of other cuisines. I drive poor Martine crazy with the weird spices and condiments I introduce into my cooking. At the same time, I try to make sure she gets plenty of the foods she particularly favors. These can usually be described as bland American food.

So it goes.

 

 

Chilehead

These Used To Be the Hottest Chiles on Record, But Things Have Changed

It was several years ago, when my brother was living in Paso Robles near California’s Central Coast. When I would go to visit him, we usually went shopping together at the farmers’ market at nearby Templeton. Once, one vendor selling olives stuffed with chile habaneros (see photo above) offered Dan and me the opportunity to taste one, all the while grinning as if he expected us to spit them out. We ate the proffered olives, smiled, and asked for more. The vendor looked at us as if we were from the hot side of Mercury.

My brother and I are bona fide chiliheads. It’s one of the things we enjoy most about getting together, because both of us are surrounded by people who blanch at the thought of biting into a sliver of jalapeño, and who carefully remove all pepperoncinis from their salads. We came by this through our mother, Sophie, who used to cook a Hungarian dish called lecso (pronounced LETCH-o), a kind of Hungarian adaptation of Spanish rice seasoned with hot Hungarian banana peppers. When I was growing up, I thought that lecso was altogether too spicy for me. Now I rather like it. (My father, however, did not: He was one of the digestively challenged.)

There is a means of measuring the hotness of chiles called the Scoville Heat Scale. Here is a summary of relative hotness of chiles:

Mexi-Bells, New Mexica, New Mexico, Anaheim, Big Jim, Peperonicini, Santa Fe Grande, El Paso, Cherry     1 100-1,000
Coronado, Mumex Big Jim, Sangria, Anaheim     2 1,000-1,500
Pasilla, Mulato, Ancho, Poblano, Espanola, Pulla     3 1,500-2,500
Hatch Green     4 2,000-5,000
Rocotillo     5 2,500-5,000
Yellow Wax, Serrano, Jalapeno, Guajillo, Mirasol     6 5,000-15,000
Hidalgo, Puya, Hot Wax, Chipotle     7 15,000-30,000
Chile De Arbol, Manzano     8 30,000-50,000
Santaka, Pequin, Super Chile, Santaka, Cayenne, Tobasco, Aji, Jaloro     9 50,000-100,000
Bohemian, Tabiche, Tepin, Haimen, Chiltepin, Thai, Yatsufusa    10 100,000-350,000
Red Savina Habanero, Chocolate Habanero, Indian Tezpur, Scotch Bonnet, Orange Habanero, Fatali, Devil Toung, Kumataka, Datili, Birds Eye, Jamaican Hot    11 350,000-855,000
Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia, a.k.a. Naga Jolokia), Naga Viper, 7 Pot Primo, 7 Pot Douglah, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Carolina Reaper    12 855,000-2,200,000

I can eat chiles up to about half a million Scoville units, namely the habaneros or Scotch Bonnets. If I were to make a large pot of soup, I could put half a chopped habanero in the pot—but no more! As for the superhot chiles such as the Carolina Reaper or Ghost Chiles, they are really too hot for comfortable human consumption, even by chiliheads. I have had powdered ghost chiles on occasion, but only in m-o-d-e-r-a-t-i-o-n.