Friday, February 22, 2008

Tabasco v. Wasabi

I don't know 'bout ya'll, but in our humble abode we always had two kinds of hot sauces sittin' up on that dining room table. As you know by now, my father hails from Texas and my Moms from Japan. Since both of them love spicy food, my sister and I were exposed at any early age to all the hot stuff our stomachs and tongues could bear. Which was a lot. Especially for kids.

I remember that way back in the day, before Fritos became so popular, there was a snack called Chili Chips. A lot of children didn't care for them because they were so peppery, but my sister and I would lick our fingers clean of the powdery, red hot residue that inevitably covered our hands.

Since my dad's parents owned a barbecue joint, our family also ate lots of homemade hot sausages that my grandmother would send us via the U.S. post office from Texas. Now that I'm vegan (and veggie for over 25 years), I can't even imagine how I used to stuff myself with all that pork that my grandparents butchered themselves. Folks would come from near and far to taste my grandfather's barbecue sauce--a truly spicy concoction.

But the Texa-cans were never outdone by the Nipponese in our household. My Moms could out-sweat all of us while she slurped boiling hot udon (noodles) sprinkled with seven-spice pepper. Then, there was the wasabi (Japanese horseradish mustard). Squeezing a tube full of the green stuff, Moms would use the end of her ohashi (chopstick) to gather a tiny bit before swirling it into shoyu (soy sauce). She'd caution us about how hot it was, but my sister and I were hardheaded and always put more on our food than we could stand--causing our sinuses to become raw, but exhilarated.

It's really hard to say which of the two was hotter--the tabasco that we dumped all over our meat and side dishes, or the wasabi we'd dip our tempura, sushi, and gohan (rice) into. Like all good Japanese, we ate rice at every meal--even if Moms cooked burgers in buns that night.

This need for heating of the mouth even affected members of our family that came later. I remember when my sister's kid was about 2 or 3, and the three of us had lunch at a Thai restaurant. My sister, who was ordering for all of us, told the waitress what we wanted and added, "I want three stars, my sister wants four, and no stars for him," she finished pointing to her son. Upon hearing that pronouncement, the poor child looked as if he was ready to burst into tears. Choking and sniffing, he blurted, "I want stars!" Of course, he thought that we were getting the celestial variety and didn't want to be left out. But to the kid's credit, he did end up eating his phad thai that day replete with several stars' worth of heat. And, to this day, he is carrying on our family legacy of hot, spicy eating. That's him, an adult now in the photo above, about to grease big time on Moms' cooking.

So, how many stars can you handle? Talk to me. Let me know about some of the unusual cultural combinations your family shared at the dinner table. That Watermelon Sushi comes in many flavas, ya know.

Your Hip Hapa,

Oh, and don't forget that we've got some really hip hapa t-shirts at

And, to learn more about my Texas grandparents and their b-b-q joint, read their story in the anthology Brothers and Others. Email me for more information:

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