Sichuanese menus in Seattle are frequently longer and denser than tax codes, which means I never have to order the same dish twice. But whether I end up eating fish soup or cumin lamb, my meal always leaves me wanting chocolate.
Since I'm not much of a chocolate fan - if I can't have cheese, I much prefer tart, fruity flavors after dinner - I long figured every Westerner was vulnerable to the same craving. That's why I thought I'd hit on the ultimate get-rich-scheme when I dreamed up the post-Chinese chocolate bar (while pedaling from Bellevue's Bamboo Garden to a Top Pot for a chocolate frosted.) Sadly, I'm yet to find a potential customer: The association is apparently mine alone.
"I've never heard of that," said Valerie Brotman, who's surely heard her share of odd chocolate confessions as co-owner of The Chocolate Box.
Judging from the chocolate novelties sold online, it's more common to want to chocolate swirled into your cheese or painted onto your body than served up after beef with chili oil. But Brotman kindly suggested my predilection might not be irredeemably weird.
"It makes a lot of sense, because the spices would make you want to cleanse your palate," she says.
The best antidote to spice is milk, which contains casein, a compound which binds with spicy capsaicin oil (unlike water, which diffuses it.) When I judged the National Fiery Food Challenge, our recovery table was set with milks, cheeses and whipped cream. I don't recall being offered any chocolate, but a milk chocolate bar must contain at least 12 percent milk solids under U.S. law. So it probably would have been at least as effective as the soothing strawberries on the table.
Serious chocolatiers tend to dismiss milk chocolate: "I don't consider milk chocolate to be chocolate. It's just candy," a chemistry professor wrote in a 2004 Washington Post column about chocolate's components. Yet when I was growing up, Hershey's - which contain about one-sixth the amount of cacao found in most artisan bars - was synonymous with chocolate. Hershey's is what my parents bought after Sunday dinners at Szechuan West.
And that ritual probably explains my habit better than any contrived chemical justification. According to Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, a University of Michigan biopsychology graduate student who this fall published research showing which part of the brain is responsible for the urge to eat sweet, fatty foods, my parents inadvertently conditioned me to expect chocolate after ma la. Just like the rats in her study who gorged on M&M's, I'm guided by something other than my feelings about chocolate when I bike directly from the hot pot table to a doughnut shop.
"This is simple Pavlovian conditioning," DiFeliceantonio e-mails. "This type of relationship has been shown repeatedly in humans and rats, it's just instead of a visual cue (the most common conditioned stimulus), your case has a flavor cue."
Honestly, I didn't even know I had a case. But in the absence of any scientific literature documenting increased chocolate cravings after exposure to certain foods (scholars are apparently more interested in the link between chocolate cravings and menstruation), I'll accept that my preference isn't evidence of a well-developed palate or an inescapable chemical reality: It's just a quirk of my culinary upbringing.