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In different countries, what is generally considered "hot" for local residents dining on local cuisine?

I'm an American and have experienced this at a number of Thai, Korean, and Indian restaurants around the United States. When ordering, guests are given an option of spiciness between mild, medium, hot, or "Thai hot" (or "Korean hot" or "Indian hot"). The implication is that what an American person would consider to be spicy, a Thai person would consider to be medium or maybe even mild.

Now, I'm a lover of spicy food and order the "Thai hot" almost every time, but it makes me wonder: is this an accurate interpretation of the perception of spiciness for different countries around the world? Or are they just presenting guests with a 1 to 4 scale on spiciness that has nothing to do with the nationality?

I have a good feel for what is considered "hot" or "spicy" in American restaurants, and I'd liken it to the spiciness of a jalepeno pepper (about 5,000 to 8,000 Scoville). I would say "mild" is up to maybe 500 Scoville, and "medium" is somewhere in the middle. There are exceptions in different regions and restaurants, but I'd think that's pretty typical.

Measured in Scoville (or maybe some other unit), what is generally considered "hot" in Thailand, Korea, and India? I'm looking for an empirical measurement of spiciness rather than a comparison between nationalities (e.g., "hot in Thailand is #,### Scoville", not "Thai food is hotter than American food").

I have not experienced this with Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Caribbean, German, French, Scottish, or any other national/regional restaurant that I can think of. For me, it's unique to Thai, Korean, and Indian restaurants in the United States. Others may have had different experiences.

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    I'm a bit skeptical that this is answerable. Every restaurant is going to use different spice scales. No kitchen is measuring spiciness in any quantitative way.
    – AMtwo
    Jan 14 at 19:12
  • It is true that "spicy like <back home>" is often used as the hottest level here in America, where spicy food is not part of "American cuisine" the way it is in other countries. I just think that any attempt to quantify that in a definitive way will fall to opinion-based answers. However, maybe someone will surprise me & identify a study that puts empirical measurement to those heat scales.
    – AMtwo
    Jan 14 at 19:15
  • I'm also afraid it's unanswerable, but I'm hoping someone has a study or some research conducted somewhere that we could reference. My internet search has been fruitless, as has asking people I know from different countries. I would expect the distribution of opinions to be like a set of normal curves with a different mean for each country and a lot of overlap within a standard deviation or two.
    – will
    Jan 14 at 19:31
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    Even within these countries there are giant differences with what is considered hot vs mild depending on region. Also it certainly wouldn't be normal curves as you are talking about something measured on [0,inf)!
    – eps
    Jan 14 at 19:37
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    Finally, while scoville tries to make objective the concept of spiciness, in practice things get much more complicated. Even without getting into the human perception aspects and all that entails, indiviudal peppers have a very large amount of variability: sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/… . I don't have access to that paper, but other sources put something like a jalapeno at somewhere between 2k-9k. Of course, if you are making a large batch of something stats will somewhat save you (CLT), but for small portions, this can be very significant
    – eps
    Jan 14 at 19:53
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Nobody has published reports on this kind of empirical evaluation, and there's a few reasons why not (in the below, "heat" refers to spiciness from capsaicin):

  1. Heat tolerance and preference varies not just from region to region of a country, but also from one individual to another, just like it does whereever you live. So finding "how hot is Thai hot" would require a survey of a large number of individuals across the whole country, and would give you a heuristic distribution instead of a specific level. Nobody cares enough to fund this.
  2. It's difficult, if not impossible, to measure the heat of finished dishes. The scoville measuring process is not designed for peppers mixed into foods, particularly since texture, competing flavors, cooking techniques, and even dining practices can affect the perception of heat. For example, there are quite a few Chinese dishes which include dried whole chili peppers that are not meant to be eaten (like bay leaves).
  3. "Local cuisine" is a squishy concept that defies empirical evaluation. For example, is Anglo-Indian cuisine "local" or not? An awful lot is eaten in British pubs. And whether or not you include it makes a huge difference in any evaluation of "how hot is British food".

Further, lemme add that none of the above would tell you anything about how restaurants outside the original culture evaluate "hot", which has more to do with their local clientele than their home country.

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  • "which has more to do with their local clientele than their home country" - That's an excellent point.
    – will
    Jan 14 at 22:11
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    4. There's heat and there's heat. The first thing that springs to mind is capsaicin (Scoville scale), as you said but then there's mustard/horseradish/wasabi etc., ginger, even black pepper. And because they're different in kind, the combination in non-linear.
    – Chris H
    Jan 15 at 10:18
  • Yeah, the capsaicin thing is unanswerable enough on its own though; no need to make it complicated.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 16 at 6:20

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