By: Tiantian Zhang
Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia
First, let me clarify the term. Stop thinking about that long-gone pop singer group. If you happen to know Chinese, I dare you not to omit the “Zi” in this word, which would completely transform to mean someone from that long-gone pop singer group. The “Spicy Girl,” as given in Google Translate for the Chinese term 辣妹子(La Mei Zi), is one stereotype that has to do with food in China. A young woman awarded with this title is usually considered beautiful, brave, feisty, and has an appreciation for spicy food due to her upbringing in the provinces of Sichuan, Hunan, and Chongqing. An English equivalent for this expression might be “a tough cookie,” though much lower in sweetness level.
Along the line of stereotyping others with a taste of food, there are terms such as the “Old Fritters” (Lao You Tiao refers to slick and flaky characters), the “Rice Buckets” (Fan Tong means someone who knows nothing but to eat), the “Baby Cabbage” (Xiao Bai Cai, a general metaphor for a poor young girl), and many, many more. Being born on the South bank of the Yangtze River, I was expected to become someone who is tendervoiced, fairskinned, professional at embroidery, who enjoys the local cuisine of Huaiyang—slightly sweet and sour in taste but never, ever spicy. Among these traditions, only that of food persisted in my family; I was brought up in a household which never spiced up the dinner table. Thus, my first encounter with spicy food was twelve years later than a real “Spicy Girl,” who is raised in the mid-Southern part of the country, where the famous Sichuan cuisine originated.
At the age of twelve, I started my 6-year sojourn in the city of Nanjing—the closest metropolis where various food cultures gather—along with my challenges in the level of pungency I could take. It was my young and adventurous cousin-in-law who decided it would be a great idea to take me out for spicy hot pot; I took a naive bite and almost cried. It might be this instance which made her my closest extended family member. Back then, she was not yet my cousin-in-law, but merely a family friend who happened to attend a college in Nanjing. Born to Sichuan parents but raised around here, she has a spicy tongue that has been an open secret in our family; although I never truly realized it until that day in the crowded spicy hot pot place in the heart of Nanjing.
Her bowl of contents steamed up with a lens of what I used to call the color of Hell. Describe a shade of red that scares you: blood, flame, heat, Mars, or the backdrop of the Communist flag. She had no fears, and she even held the bowl up finish the scarlet broth.
“It was delicious,” she told me in the most earnest manner.
“…I guess?” I was jarred as I stared at her reddened lips.
Maybe it was a means of adaptation that made me practice eating spicy food while living with her, but honestly I forgot why it all started. Maybe I was a twelve-year-old “big girl” who was capable of making food decisions for herself, or maybe I just wanted to get away from my family—who, as people, were as plain as the food they ate. As a matter of fact, mammals are the only members of the animal kingdom who can taste spicy flavors, and humans are the only species to show appreciation for them. In other words, enjoying a spicy diet is a distinct privilege of being a multicellular organism on this earth, and that was what my twelve-year-old self had yearned for.
It takes time and effort to make a Spicy Girl out of oneself. But always remember that practice makes perfect. What trained me was the pickled chicken feet, called Pao Jiao Feng Zhua in Chinese, literally meaning chicken claws that are soaked in jalapeno jars, perceived by the Americans as a bizarre dish. The reasoning behind this choice was quite apparent back then; it was the cheapest and spiciest choice in the convenience stores. They were cheap because they were merely skin and bones, and all of its value went into the enduring, sharp spiciness that has soaked all the way to the core of the bone. It is such a delicate gourmet that every corner of your mouth cannot avoid interacting with it. What a practice of the mammal privilege it was! The juice of ten jalapenos at the same time!
That same year I went back home for the New Year feast. Everyone seemed to enjoy the massive table of dishes except for me. As I said, the food on the table that night was as plain as the taste I grew up with. Halfway into the feast, my cousin-in-law squinted at me with a mysterious smile. We soon excused ourselves on a long “bathroom break,” which turned out to be the deliberate hunting of street food.
The temperature of New Year’s Eve was never mild. Thin coats of snow attempted to cover the narrow streets, disturbed by the two trails of footprints we left. Facing these unusually dim roads, my cousin-in-law and I were surprised to come across an open restaurant. The chef was still in his oil-stained apron, sitting at a square shaped table with his family, clearly having the New Year’s feast of their own. Even so, he immediately spotted us and sat us down.
I can’t recall what we had that night, but it was probably spicy hot pot again. I do remember staring at the homemade pickled chicken feet on the chef’s family table, which he had noticed and kindly shared with me. That night I graduated from factory processed pickled chicken feet. These homemade ones were by far spicier and, for the first time, enjoyable. When we walked out of the little restaurant, the snow had stopped and the air became frostier than before. Thanks to the spicy food, I did not feel cold at all on the way back home. It is said that Chairman Mao would always carry a bundle of dried chili peppers with him on battle fields, which kept him warm and awake on the freezing winter days. Little did I know that my future self would be the same — I cannot live without spicy food now.
The next quests on my spicy food journey included Mapo tofu, spicy deep-fried chicken (La Zi Ji), shredded eggplant in garlic sauce (Yu Xiang Qie Zi), and a lot more Sichuan food. However, a Nanjing privilege for pungency lovers is a condiment called red oil (La You), which is a necessity on tables in all sizes of restaurants in the city. Eating out with my mom in Nanjing always requires two separate bowls, one for my non-spicy-eating mom and another for me, the artificial Spicy Girl. Every time I sat on a table with a red bowl in front of me and a white one across from me, I would taste a slight boldness and feeling of independence.
My mom still wonders about my favoring spicy food.
“I never brought you up this way!” She said as if I had become an alien, an alien from Sichuan.
“Well, life happens.” I shrugged and told the truth.
It is true that life is full of surprises and that they are, of course, never foreshadowed. I never expected to find myself in a place where spicy food was not as cherished as a spicy soul. This magical place, called Agnes Scott, hosts young women who are beautiful, brave, feisty and barely who eat anything spicy. Being in the South, a.k.a. The Spice Desert, I struggled to find home on my tongue. Nevertheless, not only would I never give up on my quest of trying spicy cuisine, I would also strive to become more diligent, more of a Scottie. After all, you don’t have to indulge in peppers to be a Spicy Girl from the inside; just like you don’t have to be sweet when you are “a tough cookie.”