On Lock Road, in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, there is a small noodle house that goes by the clever name Rice Noodle House. The manager there also believes she’s quite clever, sitting on her stool at the register with a smirk and blackened eye.
“It’s hot cause you order medium very spicy,” she says as I try to avoid an aneurism.
My face is bright red. Sweat is pouring down it, as are tears from my eyes, and snot has just shot out of my nose and into my bowl of soup. Like most restaurants in Hong Kong, this one has no napkins, so I wipe my brow with my shirt. Each bite is nearly impossible. I bring the liquid and noodles to my mouth, but the spice makes me cough.
“Too hot, right?” the manager says. “Only people from Beijing order spicy.”
Do I look like I’m from Beijing? I want to say. But I do not say this because I physically can’t speak.
I study the red and white checklist I had used to order my soup. First one must decide between rice noodles and meat with broth or without broth. Then there are the add-ons like fish skin dumplings, pig’s blood, spicy pig skin, pig’s stomach, pig’s liver… Marissa and I had selected vegetable and pork wontons because we wanted to be safe. To not die from food poisoning at the beginning of our trip. But it feels like we are going to croak, all because we chose the wrong level of spiciness.
At Rice Noodle House, there are nine levels. Back home, whenever we order spicy, Marissa and I always say “very spicy” and then, no matter the cuisine, we find ourselves adding more heat to the meal. In Hong Kong, we had played the conservative card and selected the sixth highest level–medium very spicy, which is just above medium spicy and below very spicy, super spicy, and very super spicy.
When the red soup had first come out, I thought, It’s nice to see tomato soup in Hong Kong. So far it’s all been brown broth.
I eventually make it to the end. (The end being the point at which I eat all of the noodles and meat from my bowl and leave behind the lava. I’ve never not finished a meal.) I glance over at the table beside mine. The man’s broth looks like traditional brown broth.
“What did you select?” I ask him. Unable to speak English, He fills out a card for me. His level of spiciness is one. No spicy.
“I think they’re laughing at you,” Marissa says, pointing at the manager and the woman at the table beside her.
I wonder why you have the black eye, lady.