Eating green chili dip in the New Normal

Or, how we might adapt to COVID-19 like we eat spicy food

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
Sep 19, 2020 · 6 min read
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Green chili dip at one of my favourite spots in Chiang Mai, along with other northern dishes

One of my favourite Northern Thai dish is the green chill dip (นำ้พริกหนุ่ม) and chicharron (แคบหมู). It’s a refreshing and sometimes spicy appetizer we order without fail every time where we head up to the cool, hip Chiang Mai, a northern province of Thailand. I say “sometimes” because it seems that my tolerance for hot spiciness varies, something I chalk up to living abroad and now living in Bangkok where the food is over-sweetened to placate the urban appetite.

Or so I thought.

My dad told me that when he was younger, this chili paste used to vary in spiciness over the seasons. He grew up in Payao, another northern province about an hour and a half away from Chiang Mai. During the summer, he said, when water was scarce, the spicy chemicals concentration increased (capsaicinoids, presumably), and intensified the spiciness in each bud of chili. Using the same amount of chili every time to make the “meat” of the dip, people would end up with the same chili paste that is just a little bit spicier, in sync the summer heat.

This factoid didn’t really matter to him — he’s a spicy eater. But me? The seasonal flux, I imagine, could knock me out. Probably. Unless I learn to live with nature’s flavours.

I can’t say I have scientific evidence for this (please let me know if you do!), but the anecdote makes me think about how we might live with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Hear me out.

To bring everyone up to speed: it’s 2020 and we find ourselves in a state of addiction to capitalism that daily reminds us how we will/shall/can/are obligated to go back to normal. No more masks, social distancing, work from home, zoom calls, and more giving hugs, enjoying concerts, same old shopping. A “new normal”, then, reads like a euphemism for “let the profits begin (again)!”.

Behind this new normal looms the “second wave”, the possibility that COVID-19 cases will re-emerge as governments ease lock down measures and cities readjust to business as usual. For those Southeast Asian and Asian countries — and New Zealand — that got our “business” together fast, the second wave is a very real threat. As of August 2020, we are hearing about Japan and South Korea dealing with it (Spain’s case count is also rebounding while America is still on it’s first).

An early study from March conducted by Imperial College’s COVID-19 Response Team analysed two policy strategies of dealing with the pandemic in the context of Great Britain:

  • suppression (measures to reduce or eliminate human-to-human transmission)
  • mitigation (measures to reduce the health impact to vulnerable groups and thus build immunity in the population).

Though I am no expert in medicine (and neither is this post about reviewing political strategies), one chart in particular caught my eyes which may or may not be looking for a certain pattern:

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The chart shows a simulation of an “adaptive triggering of suppression strategies” in Great Britain in response to a threshold number of weekly ICU cases. In simpler terms: if the number of ICU cases falls below 50, schools and universities can be re-opened; if the number reaches 100, then they will be closed. All other policies considered in the paper, including case isolation, voluntary quarantine, and social distancing measures remain enforced throughout.

Without minimizing the severity or gravity of the pandemic (to the essential workers, parents, teachers, and basically everyone who keeps our economy running), the cyclic nature of this policy strategy reminds of the seasonality of the chili paste. Could we get used to drastic on-again-off-again lockdown measures that affects our daily lives?

This possible future state of flux requires that we be constantly aware and adaptable to the spread of the virus. As Bangkok is reopening back to normalcy, I am starting to notice the little things that changed:

  • Max. occupancy signs at retail shops and restaurants
  • Contact tracing QR codes for businesses
  • Plastic screens for food courts, info counters, cashiers
  • Alcohol gels everywhere
  • Temperature screenings for everyone going on public transport and into businesses
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A socially distant line with mandatory masks for everyone at a mall after reopening. Source.
  • Shops closing intermittently or early to clean up
  • Plastic coverings for napkins, utensils, plates for the fancier restaurants
  • Servers and workers wearing masks and even gloves
  • Everyone wearing masks when we go outside
  • Routine cleaning for private residences for elevators, doors, etc.
  • Delivery for pick up and drop off points at shopping malls, and at private residences
  • Did I mention alcohol gel everywhere? And hands-free gel dispensers?

These measures are here to stay and they’re effective reminders that the pandemic is anything but normal (or fully gone). These new behaviors and cues we’ve come to learn could serve as the mental baseline from which we can hit reverse our reopening plans. Until we have a vaccine, it seems like our new normal is one of uncertainty, where the second wave is (should be?) in the back of everyone’s minds.

If we think of the green chili dip as a broad metaphor for the state of our economy — or even capitalism as we know it — then we could think about adjusting to our new normal as…

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A wholesome meal for the new normal, from left to right: chili dip (green), rice (white), chicharron (yellow), and water (blue!). Credit: Jirayuth Tuntivoranukul
  • Eating less chili dip e.g. tone down on some non-essential lifestyle choices (that absolutely makes life worth living), like socializing in crowds, going to concerts, eating out, #travels
  • Eat more chicharron e.g. be extra diligent with your hygiene like washing your hands, not touching your face when you go out to work, get food, and other essentials items.
  • Eat with rice e.g. supplement your new normal routine and work with freelancing jobs or life-enriching hobbies. Add a new, if less flashy, flavors to your life by picking up new habits that you can do indoors. Read a book, or better yet, start a bookclub. Invest in a home office, or a room for remote house parties. Or try volunteering your time online?
  • Chug some cold water! e.g. take the pandemic as an opportunity to pause and ask of ourselves: How did we get here? Take the time to find a new career, hobby, routine that might actually suit you better than before. Even better, use the global unity and solidarity to think about what’s not working before. Nobody’s asking you to tolerate the spice. PS: I don’t think water actually helps cool down the spiciness in your mouth.

Writing this out “loud” on, I realize that not everyone is in the economic position to pause or change their habits. But for those who can, maybe some of these provocations can help our society as a whole adjust to this (and future?) pandemic better in the long-run.

As scarring as this pandemic has been to humankind, there is an option for us to start living with it now, in harmony with “nature”. We can think of adaptation as a life-saving toolkit that we keep within reach. We can stay aware of new developments in the scientific community. We can be diligent with our masks and other hygiene habits. We can check in on our friends and help those in need get by through our donations, activisms, or our works.

And if we’re careful, we can have the dip and eat it too.


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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