Kung pow!

Last night I made kung pao chicken from a Fine Cooking recipe. I liked it–it was just the kind of cornstarch-packed Sino-American glop I require from time to time, but better and cheaper than our local takeout options. (Probably next I’ll try the kung pao recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, for a less saucy and gloopy version. I like it both ways.)

For the most part, I’ve given in to Iris’s antipathy toward spicy foods. Sometimes I serve something with a spicy salsa on the side, but many of my favorites are spicy throughout. Kung pao chicken is like that: trying to fake it with dried chile flakes or hot oil at the end feels like cheating. Even if I might never tell the difference in a blind test, I imagine the hot stuff never quite permeates the dish the way it should.

So I cheated. While the sauce was thickening up, I spooned out a portion into a bowl for Iris, then added a whole minced jalapeƱo to the rest for me and Laurie. I felt a bit like I was compromising my principles, specifically that when adults and children sit down together, they should eat the same stuff. But then I was like, wait a minute, it’s not like I’m serving Iris chicken nuggets while we eat kung pao, and me eating spicy food is an important principle too.

Iris was suspicious. “That’s not the spicy one?” she asked, indicating the small bowl. I think she was trying to trip us up and make us admit that, okay, they’re both spicy. But she enjoyed the kung pao, almost as much as the rice. I’ll probably play spicy/nonspicy again when the dish provides an easy branch point, but I am not making mild enchiladas.

15 thoughts on “Kung pow!

  1. duchess

    That’s actually a really common thing we do in our culture, since not all kids can handle the spiciness. So it’s pretty common to scoop out enough for the non-spicy eater prior to tossing a lot in. So don’t feel like you are cheating. This is a grand old tradition!

  2. Liza

    We’ve made that Land of Plenty version before and it is awesome, but it doesn’t keep — the whole Sichuan peppercorns rendered it literally inedible the next day.

  3. mamster Post author

    Duchess, that makes me feel much better. Liza, I’ll keep that in mind. The gloppo kung pao made a great lunch today.

  4. Lore

    There’s something I wonder about: I remember feeling physical pain when I’d taste something spicy as a kid. It would feel as if my tongue was, literally, burning. As time went by the effect was less and less, so that now I like spicy food.

    I also remember walking down the frozen food aisle of the grocery store and being chilled to the bone by the cold from the freezer cases. I can’t even imagine that happening anymore.

    So I wonder: Are our nerves (and tastebuds) more sensitive when we’re kids? Do they get worn out and callosed as we grow up?

    I guess I’m on Iris’ side on this one. At least until she turns, like, thirteen.

  5. heather

    i do seem to remember learning that, like kids’ juicy, juicy brains that start to shrivel up and dry out around age 11, babies’/kids’ tongues and tastebuds are more sensitive…or maybe they have MORE tastebuds, or something. and a life of, you know, eating stuff eventually starts to dull things.

    though i was an english major, not pre-med, so this may be crap. or something i dreamed.

  6. Neil

    I still feel like my tongue (actually my whole mouth) is physically burning when I eat spicy food. Not a pleasant or enjoyable sensation. This doesn’t seem to have gone away as I’ve gotten older.

    Whenever I ask someone if a dish is “spicy” and they say “oh, it’s not very spicy”, I know to avoid it since it will invariably be too hot for me.

  7. teri

    But Iris used to love spicy food! When did you start noticing that she didn’t like it anymore? I wonder why children get pickier after their initial omnivorishness (is that a word? Maybe not, but I bet Michael Pollan uses it now and again)?

  8. Carrie

    You should of seen the look on my kids’ faces today when I asked if they wanted to try the potato chips with black pepper, you would have thought I’d suggested eating the pet kitty–whole!

    I think your approach to divvying the pot was just right, both straightforward and thoughtful.

  9. mamster Post author

    Teri, I don’t know the answer, but it’s clearly a real phenomenon with a physiological basis. I have an article coming out at some point that explores this topic a bit. I’ll keep you posted; right now I have no idea when it’s going to run.

    Carrie, I get this from Iris all the time. At one point she accused some bland breakfast sausage of being “a little spicy.” She should write ad copy.

  10. molly

    MFK Fisher (I think it’s in an Alphabet for Gourmets) and Laurie Colwin both talk (beautifully) about how children taste more acutely than we do. Then again, Colwin’s daughter memorably asked her to trot down to Balducci’s for more garlic bread. Go figure.

    I wasn’t a divvier to begin with, but despite my same food for everyone policy, my six year old ceased eating anything seasoned, then mixed, around age three. His dinners still echo ours, just deconstructed. My two year old, on the other hand, ate half a quart of cumin-spiked raita tonight. Go figure.

    Thanks for the previous entry on Child of Mine — fascinating book.

  11. Wendy

    Also, Matthew, say if there was something Laurie didn’t like–wouldn’t you do the same for her? (Maybe you wouldn’t, I don’t know.) So perhaps it is a personal-preferences thing, rather than an adult-child thing?…

  12. sphitz

    Capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers of the family Capsicum, is what we associate with “heat”. (I’m not sure if it’s the same in Sichuan peppers.) This chemical stimulates VR1 receptors on nerve cells and when the brain receives this information, it’s sensed as pain. I would go on, but I just found this handy and well written Wikipedia page.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capsaicin

    (Notice the Tewksbury citation at the end of the page…)

    As to why adults become less sensitive to capsaicin over time, well, there is a chain of physiological events that causes the calcium channels in the neurons to get flooded to a point that they don’t recover. They get “stuck open”, essentially. Once this happens, the neuron doesn’t fire as readily when exposed to smaller amounts of capsaicin. Capsaicin tolerance is the result.

  13. mamster Post author

    sphitz, thanks for the elucidation. The chemical in sichuan peppercorns is different, as is the one in black pepper, but the principle is presumably the same.

    Wendy, I am sensitive to Laurie’s preferences when making dinner, except that sometimes I make shrimp even though Iris and I like it and Laurie doesn’t.

  14. Great

    2-15-07 I know that I had read somewhere that the tastes of babies develop and change several times in the course of their development, so now you are in the “too spicy” or “too anything” stage. I really have no recollection of my son’s distinct responses or reactions to the food he ate, probably because, fundamentally, it was boring……but I must say he always ate it all! Youknow my son, he’s still not a gourmet, rather a gourmand, I would say.

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