By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
Having spent numerous months in the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, I consider myself an expert on spicy foods.
When I lived there I used to wait and take my shower after breakfast (cold shower!) because breakfast itself would inspire profuse sweating. I use sriracha sauce like it is ketchup, but main courses in Sri Lanka generally would insult (assault) the palates of the majority of Americans who aren’t as accustomed to that. Whenever I was invited to someone’s house for dinner, the whole family would hover around the table as I tasted grandma’s lotus-stem curry (which is really okra, I think).
I had absolutely no idea of what I was putting in my mouth, but but most Sri Lankan food looks like someone barfed on a pile of rice, and it smells like nothing you’ve ever smelled before. Happily, I’ve never met a curry I didn’t like. To be polite, after the initial bite I sort of fanned my face with my hand to indicate that, yes, it’s pretty spicy.
Spicy food makes me sweat like a pig, especially around my hairline, and the Sri Lankan families delighted at the perspiration that coursed down my forehead, eventually to drip off the end of my nose and earlobes and soak through my shirt. That’s when you know I enjoyed the meal.
A volunteer from the Czech Republic joined us for a couple of months at Sri Bodhiraja Monastery (and popsicle dispensary) in Embilipitiya—a tall blonde woman named Lenka, whose major complaint in life was that her boyfriend was a cheapskate. I was there at her first Sri Lankan breakfast (we ate the monks’ leftovers), and when she took her first spoonful of potato curry, her eyes got round and her cheeks turned red as a German’s. “I can’t eat food this spicy!” she said. “I am going to starve here.”
A week later and it was “Pass the chili paste, please.”
I prefer a chili burn as opposed to a cayenne or habañero burn, but I’m not picky. I always eat the same meal no matter what Indian restaurant I go to—shrimp vindaloo—and when the waiter asks me how spicy I want it, I say “Make it as hot as the owner likes it.” I’ve had shrimp vindaloos so spicy they actually cause physical pain when I put them in my mouth.
Hunanese? Fah-geddaboutit. Authentic Mexican? Thai? You got nothing. Puh-leeze. In Sri Lanka a real treat is something called coconut sambal, which is a combination of shredded coconut, chilis and lime juice. It’ll set you free!
So much for Buddhist life being bland. My system has been fine-tuned (read dead taste buds) to appreciate curries, chilis and halapenos so well that they don’t even give me the runs.
We ate a lot of potato curry, which is eaten over a pile of rice, a little salt fish for the protein, coconut sambal, a few weird vegetable side-dishes, and an assortment of fresh fruits, as in mango, papaya, pineapple and jackfruit. But no oranges or apples. They can’t tolerate Sri Lanka’s oppressive heat. Guava. Blackish-purple berries the size of tablespoons, which you had to eat whole because they were so juicy.
And coconuts. Lots of coconuts.
The monks don’t eat after the noon meal, though in the evening after puja they drink enormous amounts of “tea” out of their begging bowls. There is probably tea in the concoction, but it’s mostly malted milk. It’s almost like a liquid dessert. But if we civilians wanted an evening meal, we were on our own. Happy Cow cheese and crackers was my staple, or hoppers from the dirty little outdoor restaurant down the street from the temple. Hoppers are bowl-shaped crepes made out of rice flour and coconut milk. Usually you ate hoppers rolled up like a burrito with a shmeer of chili paste. A real treat was a hopper with a fried egg inside, and a shmeer of chili paste.
When the monks eat, they eat in silence. Now, you would think that their eating in silence would have to do with strict monastic rules, a sign of self-discipline, but you would be wrong. They don’t talk because of the practical notion that you should focus your entire attention on eating so that you can milk every bit of pleasure out of your meal.
Lots of stuff in life is like that. So much of our lives we do on autopilot. We try to multitask, but multitasking lowers the quality of the results of performing tasks which, if you didn’t do anything else but that one task, your results would be better.
Buddhist practice, i.e. meditation, is all about learning focus and concentration, two things that can’t help but improve your life.
Once when I was teaching mindfulness to a bunch of convicts, I came with about a pound and a half of gummy bears. They’re all different colors, of course, so I gave each con a Dixie cup full of gummy bears, and then I posed this question: do all gummy bears taste the same? That ponderable is a behavior-changer; the guys were eating the gummy bears very slowly, one at a time, and you could see the concentration in their faces on that one little squishy piece of candy.
At the end of the exercise I asked them if they enjoyed the experience of focusing and concentrating on each gummy bear they put in their mouth. Of course they did. Mindful eating beats mindless eating.
Imagine if you ate potato chips like that.
Editor: Dana Gornall