I love to eat hot (spicy) food, food that’s so hot it’s guaranteed to knock everything out of my sinuses. A few years back I stumbled onto a brand of salsa called "Pain is Good." That just about says it all. Much to my delight, there are many hot dishes in Chinese cuisine. Sichuan cuisine is probably the most famous for it’s heat, but Hunan food is also very spicy. I lived in China’s northeast for 8 years, and was pleased to find that they also have a love of firey peppers, thanks to the Korean influence.
As I’ve studied Chinese over the years, I’ve made note of the various ways in which Chinese people talk about their food. I’ve also found that food is a popular topic of conversation and one well-placed question or comment about food can keep table talk at a banquet going for hours on end. Invariabley the matter of spicy hot (la) will be raised, and this is where the linguistic fun begins. The language has an elaborate set of colloquialisms to talk about a person’s tolerance for hot food. They are:
pa la: pa means "to be afraid of," or "don’t like" and la means "spicy hot." Someone who is pa la can’t take hot food.
bu pa la: bu means "not" so this phrase means "not afraid of hot," or "I can eat a bit of hot." It emphasizes that one can eat hot food. The food is hot? No problem! I can handle it!
pa bu la: this phrase is the strongest, meaning "I’m afraid it won’t be hot," which is to say bring on the hot food. The hotter the better (yue la yue hao).
A new Hunan restaurant has opened in our neighborhood and has quickly become a favorite of my teammates and me. As I mentioned before, Hunan food’s signature characteristic is hot! We’re talking off-the-charts hot. I’ve learned a new term to add to the ones above: wei la (micro-hot). When we order a dish the waitress asks us if we want the food prepared wei la or zhengchang la (normal hot). Recently I was eating lunch there with my boss and we decided that since we both take pride in being pa bu la, we’d go for the zhengchang la. Yowzer! I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten anything so hot in my life, which is something given the fact that I was born and raised in Pakistan! We could almost feel our brains burning.
Next time this pa bu la is definitely going for the wei la.