My first experience of spicy food was 1971. I was 19, brought up on meat and two veg and plenty of Yorkshire pudding and banana custard! I went to university thinking spaghetti only came from a tin smothered in tomato sauce! I soon discovered new foods and began to wonder whether I could eat a curry. Eventually a new friend, N, clearly with a more cosmopolitan upbringing than me offered to tutor me in the delights of Indian food. We went to a local Indian restaurant and I asked what was the mildest curry. He said korma so I ordered that. The taste was awful. I could barely eat a mouthful and regretfully, as a penniless student, I had to leave most of it. This was disappointing and it was to be a while before I tried anything spicy again.
I did not know what it was I did not like. It did not seem too hot or too spicy but it was clearly not to my taste. It must have been a year or more before I was offered curry by another student cooking it fresh in the halls. To be polite I said yes. I was dreading it. He apologised if it was going to be too hot and I nervously took a mouthful. It was hot, exceptionally so, but I liked that sensation. The taste was fantastic. Somehow I now liked curry. I have never looked back since though I simply had to discover what it was that had put me off at first so I could understand what had happened.
In 1971 all asian restaurants were called Indian restaurants no distinction was really made between Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepalese or Sri Lankan fare, well not in the north anyway. What had happened was that I had actually been taken to a Sri Lankan restaurant which specialises in spicy foods served usually with coconut. Korma is also usually cooked with coconut. It was that taste that I had so strongly objected to and to this day remains problematic, as most of my friends now know.
But buoyed by my conquering of the curry that night such food became a stable diet though my tastes have become more sophisticated as the years have passed. At first such food was a late night treat instead of fish and chips and usually eaten after too much beer. We would eat the most spicy dish on the menu often vindaloo and because our taste buds were compromised by beer we were fine until the next morning. But our constitutions were robust and it troubled us only briefly without ever making us question our routines.
Once I had left university and began to cook for myself more and more, the diversity and subtly of spicy foods became more self-evident. Indian take aways were not the only places frequented and indeed new restaurants grew up serving much more targeted fare from regions of India or other asian destinations. Cookery programmes began to introduce the complexity of using spices in other cuisines, Mexican, Sichuan, Singaporean, Spanish and Thai (though for me Thai cooking uses too much coconut!) these spices tickled our taste buds in so many different ways.
I recall my one brief visit to India when I went looking for an authentic Indian restaurant. Of course there wasn’t any as they all were Indian by definition. (Doh!) The food was gloriously different and I was spoilt for choice. An Indian friend introduced me to the delights of vegetarian cooking with spices and my knowledge and my tastes changed again. I noticed too my daughter after leaving home soon got into spicy food and has become addicted to chillis which appear in most of her food creations.
As I have got older I cannot tolerate spicy food quite as easily. I enjoy the more subtle flavours but real heat is a problem. Some days I simply do not want to taste it but on occasions still a high quality meal at an Indian or other asian restaurant promises delights which are irresistible even if the following day can have its trials.
I am glad I did not recoil for too long from my first experience I would have missed out on too much. I feel like a curry now!