If your kids are just starting to eat their own meals, you want to be very careful what you put on their palates. That is especially true for spicy food. Our kids do not like spicy foods, despite having spent the first few months of their lives in Thailand. Well, I expect one explanation is that they were not eating solid food at the time.
But the tastebuds - and sense of smell - in small kids is much more sensitive to strong tastes than those of older people. It is not just a matter of age numbing your senses, small children are physiologically more sensitive to sweet taste.
Sensivity to sweet taste would sound like a reason our kids do not like Thai food. But it is the spiciness that turns them off. Thai food can be so spicy that your tounge wants to run away and hide. It is the explanation for the white powder in the Thai cruet stands - it is sugar intended to keep the spicyness at bay. And at the same time, the spicyness of Thai cooking tickles your tastebuds in a specific way. Or maybe I shoild say massages - Thai massage. Of the joint-breking kind.
Chilli Peppers Close By
Living within a comfortable overnight daytrip from several of the worlds spiciest kitchens makes you apprehensive of the power of red peppers. And green, in the case of Thai spices. The spiciness of Thailand will curl your tounge, the Korean spicy cooking make your mind weak with a red pepper-induced fever. Schezuan cooking will make you feel like you were a Mongolian conqueror.
Same Pepper, Different Taste
All that from spices that are not native to this part of the world and were not available here six hundred years ago. The red chilli pepper (and the green) all came from America in the years after Columbus. They were introduced to the (not yet closed) countries of Korea, Japan, and China by Spanish traders who brought the seeds to curious customers. Together with the sweet potato, the tomato, and all the other results of the Columbian migration.
The amazing thing is that the same spices can be used to create so different tastes. A Szechuan mabodofu is something completely different from a Korean sundubu jjigae. And yet the ingredients are largely the same. The variety of dishes that contain chilies in their various forms is nothing short of amazing. And if anything, their popularity increases as more people get to know these amazing spicy cuisines.
Chilli Pepper Addiction
The reason people love them (and that spicy cooking is actually addictive) is the same that our kids avoid them: pain. Yes, pain. The reason you love gai pad prik gaeng is that it hurts your stomach. And that it feels so good when it stops.
This is no joke. You may have heard of endorphines. Your body releases them when pain stops, like when you finish a workout. They are more addictive than heroin.
This is why people who like spicy food will crave it more and more. It becomes a downer when you stop.
Acquired Spicy Taste
You will not have your kids eating spicy food unless you make an effort to make them eat spicy foods, you hardly have to worry. Even children in Thailand and Korea, where food is hardly considered tasty if it is not spicy, do not eat the food their parents eat. They have to be weaned to the spiciness, and their parents will start with small morsels of diluted spicy food, and gradually increase the dose. By age five, their diet would bring tears to the eyes of a man grown up on a diet of sausages and potatoes.
If you go to one of the home countries of spicy food, be it Korea, Thailand, Mexico or China, you probably neither have the time nor the inclination to train your children to like spicy food (unless you move there permanently). So you want to know what food to avoid, if you want your kids to eat their meals.
Korea Is Simple, Thailand Is Complicated
It is easier in Korea than other places: Anything that is not colored red is not spicy. It really is that simple. Korean cooking is all about creating a feeling (much of it has roots in traditional medicine), so the spiciness has one distinct quality, pushing the balance of your body. Other foods have different qualities. It is not as simple as spicy food heating you up, and cold foods like tofu cooling you down.
Thailand is much more complicated. The easiest way is to assume that everything is spicy. Unless it is white rice. Or fresh fruit.
Family Restaurant Breaded Shrimp
Finding foods your kids will eat can be very complicated, and they are likely to develop a sweet tooth as well as a taste for spicy foods.
In Thailand, you may want to stay with Western cooking if your kids are sensitive. Or go to one of the ubiquitous Japanese restaurants, where you can be assured that there is no chilipepper in the ramen or takoyaki. Although you had better make sure that it is an actual Japanese chain, and not a homegrown Thai offering like Penguin Bento.
In Japan, things are much easier. Even if it is a rare family restaurant where the kids menu does not feature breaded and deep-fried shrimp, Japanese menues are surprisingly family-friendly. Kid-friendly, even. If the restaurants allow kids, they will have childrens options on the menu.
Foods To Avoid In Japan
That is not to say that your children can eat anything on the menu, or anything you pick off the shelves in the supermarket. There are plenty of foods you should avoid feeding your children that you can buy in Japanese supermarkets.
That is not to say there are no spicy foods in Japan. There are, but they are spicy in an entirely different way from chilli pepper spiciness. Unless they are Korean-inspired. You can buy (a passable imitation of) kimchee in the grocery stores, and the most recent addition to the 7-11 onigiri lineup of rice balls with filling is the bibimbap onigiri. Unless you are Korean, do not buy it for your children. It is not very spicy as these things go but way too spicy for small children.
The Safety Of Onigiri
In Japan, onigiri are usually a safe option, unless they contain uncooked things. You have to read the labels (which are usually in Japanese, except recently in 7-11 and Lawson). The taste may not be spicy, but it can be unfamiliar enough to turn off your kids. Try to figure out what they may like, for instance by feeding them small pieces in advance.
And if nothing else works, there are usually plain rice onigiri. They will never be spicy.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.