“How ignorant I was, clueless to the joys of a really good chicken rice chilli, a well-balanced belacan, or even the soul-searing suffering that is a given in any mala dish,” he says.
“I discovered that spice and heat are not just flavours; they’re portals into another dimension. I discovered the soul-cleansing qualities of tom yum soup, learnt to love the mix of spice and acidity in the chilli that usually accompanies braised meats, and began cooking with kimchi and gochujang. I was a convert.”
These days, Julian still doesn’t have an exceptionally high tolerance for spice, but he’s able to rattle off the things he has come to love like a seasoned spice-lover: chilli oil, lao gan ma, the combination of sourness and spiciness.
“Most of all, I love that in these moments of savouring spicy foods, eating feels like a genuine, all-encompassing experience. One in which I’m engaging not just my taste buds and my intellect, but in which my body responds in a way that makes me feel alive,” he adds.
With friends, he no longer has to request that they refrain from ordering certain things, which means many more dishes have become regular options rather than occasional occurrences. From mee goreng to sambal kangkong to laksa (extra chilli), being able to appreciate a wider range of dishes has made him feel less selective with how he engages his country and culture’s different cuisines.
But not every non-spice eater is as enlightened. Some remain in their own bubble because of biology; their bodies simply cannot take the heat despite multiple attempts. Others continue choosing the bland life out of sheer reluctance to venture out of their comfort zones.
Then there are a few, like Julian, who may realise that not eating spicy food—and worse, not even attempting to—is akin to renouncing their Singapore citizenship. After all, we are a country whose strength lies in our diversity of ethnicities and cultures, and a hallmark of the Singaporean identity is celebrating these differences, including each culture’s own variations of spicy food.
Being a spice-lover is about being accepting. Spice doesn’t discriminate: no matter the cuisine, nor whether we’re part of the 70% or 30%, a love for spice reduces us all to the same sniffly, snot-nosed, but delirious, gluttons.
And as it is, forming an instant connection with someone else who asks for more sambal with their nasi lemak, requests for extra chilli packets for McDelivery orders, or lugs their own bottle of chilli sauce whenever they travel to Western countries, will always be an inherently Singaporean experience.