A Pale Nose, Lips, and A Straw

Sudden Surprising Super-Sneeze

Here is one of the unexpected insights of world travel: peppers now make me sneeze.

Formerly they did not, but now they do.

It’s not some adverse allergic reaction. I don’t swell up or get hives or palpitate
or feel crummy.

Thai Cockles and a Fresh Red Chili.

A plate of Thai cockles sporting a fresh, red, bird’s eye chili. Combined with the basil to the left, it delivers a beautiful flavor. And its like delivering a feather to my nose. Click the photo to enlarge.

I sneeze.

I’m more like a cartoon character than an invalid. Perhaps the scenes are already in your mind: a mouse, let’s call him Jerry, shakes pepper. A cat, let’s call him Tom, inhales. You see Tom’s nose begin to twitch. He leans back, back, back, with each lean taking a bigger and bigger breath. Can Jerry’s finger under Tom’s nose stop what’s coming? A clothespin? What about an anvil? None of Jerry’s quick thinking can stop the inevitable…kablooey! Tom’s mighty sneeze startles a napping bulldog, who awakens with a scowl.

Until the last two months, I thought, “such cartoons are just an animator’s fantasy.” I thought, “of course dust can make you sneeze. They show black pepper because everyone knows it’s dusty. Nothing special about pepper.”

Now, for me, there’s something special about chili pepper.

Yes, that’s right, chili pepper, not black pepper.

Perhaps I should be careful: black pepper might make me sneeze now, but there’s not a lot of it in the cuisines of Thailand and Malaysia. There’s no easy experiment to perform.

The easy, essentially daily, experiment is the considerable presence of red chili in the cuisines of our two most recent host countries:

  • Sprinkle dry chili flakes in my Thai noodle soup? Slurp. Tingle. Sneeze.
  • Chili oil used to fry a fish on Penang? Bite. Tingle. Sneeze.
  • Hokkien noodles served with a spoon brimming over with chili paste? Swirl. Taste. Tingle. Sneeze.
Pasty and Sauce for Top Hats

Can the sauce for these top hats (a pastry crust the diner fills with salads, a specialty in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown) coax a sneeze out of me? You bet. Click the photo to enlarge.

A little chili seems quite enough to trigger the response, thank you.

I usually only sneeze once. Though occasionally I have a sneezing fit: I shot off a fast seven over some super-peppery Szechuan chicken here in Kuala Lumpur.

What’s different now? What might cause this comedy? It must be me, right? The three leading contenders are:

Want to vote for the most likely? Or advance another theory? That’s what the comment section of a blog is for, isn’t it?

With olfactory sensitivities,