Are you getting ready to host a US client in India?
We have prepared many teams for this day. In preparing for the US client visit, many wonder if American citizens would eat spicy food and what spicy food actually means to an American.
Of course, this topic always ensues a lively discussion as there are some in the training room [in India] who are not shy to admit they do not eat spicy food, and a US American should not assume all Indians eat spicy food.
While the definition of spicy means different things to different people, there are places in the US that some prefer to use salt, butter, light herbs, and maybe black pepper. The use of cayenne pepper, habanero, jalapeño, paprika, red chili, green chili and other ‘hot spices’ may be absent in some homes in the US. While, others, maybe closer to Mexico may enjoy food with more of a kick. However, spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, anise, cloves, curry leaves, cardamom, and other spices that create garam masalas or sambar masalas may be foreign to some US citizens who prefer more of a natural taste to their food. The spicy pickles of India would be an new experience for many in the USA who think a pickle is a pickled cucumber!
Of course, when a US client visits your office in India, it may be wise that a few days before they arrive to ask them about their food preferences, what they may be interested to try, if they are open to spicy foods, and if they have any food allergies (nuts can be a problem for many US Americans).
It’s sometimes easy to forget that spicy has a different meaning to different people. Once, after living in Kerala for 4-5 years, I was hosting a student from Belgium in Kochi. We decided to go to Taj for lunch. When the student asked me about what she could try that would not be spicy, I suggested Dhal Makhani (which many of my friends who were born and raised in India find to be mild or even bland). When she took this with her rice, she tasted the gravy in a small amount. At that time, her face turned red, she started crying and needed water claiming her mouth was on fire!!
It was interesting that she used the term ‘fire’ because it reminded me of what we say in the US when we eat something spicy- we say we are on fire, our mouth is on fire or call the fire department!
Of course, I can’t say I have never been guilty of this happening, too. My story happened back in the 90s when I was staying in my friend’s house who did not know English and I did not know Tamil. So, Amma made sambar, rasam and curries. When I took the first bite of sambar rice, my mouth was on fire, and I started crying. She was scared. She did not know what happened. I saw one of the dishes looked like raita (yogurt with cooling vegetables) from North Indian restaurants, so I pointed to that. Well…. this was not raita but more like a pachadi – yogurt with ginger, pepper and green chilies. This had the opposite impact of cooling me down- it made the situation worse. I just couldn’t breathe or talk. Amma was saying something in Tamil that I learned later meant she thought I did not like her food because I was crying and couldn’t breathe. One of the brothers in the house got me plain yogurt… oh my.. I had to drink about 5 tumblers of that by the time I could breathe again. A few months later we had a good laugh about that incident, but in the moment, we all wanted to cry!
What does it mean when people eating say, “We will have to call the fire department to put out the fire.”?
So, if you are out in a restaurant in the US with your US colleagues and they eat spicy chicken wings or anything spicy, they may say, ‘I’ll have to call the fire department to put out the fire.” (Keep in mind what Americans think is spicy is not the same as what Indians think as spicy, in most cases.)
How common is this phrase?
Actually, I am not sure how common this phrase is across the US, or in cities. I am used to hearing this phrase in small towns in New York State.
What other phrases or idioms can people say when they eat spicy food?
I am not sure. Maybe readers of this post can leave ideas in the comments below.
What are other phrases people may use in American Restaurants?
While it’s hard to share every single word or phrase due to regional cultures and culture and language change, check out this post for some more ideas.
I would suggest to always have a wide range of spice levels from completely bland to spicy ready in case your client would like to try different tastes. However, if it is a spicy item, try to be sure there is something around like plain buttermilk (not sambaram), plain yogurt (not pachadi or yogurt with green chilies), payasam (rice pudding with cashews), or kheer (North Indian rice pudding), or something else without spices or pepper. Also make sure if it’s a drink, it doesn’t have carbonation as carbonation can make spicy stuff feel spicier!
Jennifer Kumar, author of this post is an American citizen living as an expat in Kochi, India. helping Indians gain experience and confidence in interacting conversationally with Americans.