Saturday, September 17, 2011

Some Like It Hot

So I really love eating spicy foods. A lot of people can't fathom why someone would want to cause themselves pain by eating something hot. I've heard so many times, "I don't understand eating something so hot. All you get is burn and pain and you can't taste anything."

I think if you have thought or said this, you have either been eating the wrong kind of spicy food (no flavor, just heat), or you're just drinking bottle after bottle of lame sauce. My guess is that it's been both. So I'm going to chat a bit about spicy foods, how they work, and why we like them (and why some don't).

 Lots of people think that spicy food has no flavor - that's just not the case. There are some foods which are over-the-top spicy without enough flavor to make up for them, and sometimes people spice something overly much when there aren't enough flavors to offset it. A good example is using tons of wasabi on sushi. I have friends who swear it tastes good, but the flavors in sushi (aside from maybe eel) aren't robust enough to offset the spice of the Japanese horseradish. Not to mention - for all you wasabi fans - that this type of hot is more like a hot mustard. Meaning that there is a lot of vapor and gas which burn the nasal passages and mucous membranes, and affect the tongue a lot less. The trick is to start off with really robust and complex flavors in foods and add a little bit of spice at a time. You build a tolerance, so you can eventually get to a point that the hot foods feel less like they're setting you on fire and you taste the flavors and enjoy them more. I'd try starting with something like chili or a mild curry. There's plenty of flavor (including the various flavors from the peppers), so you get a good experience out of the entire meal - a palate party!

Something else I feel I should point out is that people like to avoid spicy foods because they think they cause ulcers. Again, UNTRUE. We know now that ulcers are caused by the bacteria H. plyori. It does look like spicy foods might irritate ulcers, so there's that.

Color enhanced on left to show caipsaicin oil
How it works, and why we love it: I'll talk about the foods that I love to eat. Most of the ones I love are foods based on peppers. I won't get into the Scoville Scale (the scale that measures the hotness level of peppers), although I do love pointing out how lame jalapeno peppers are in the grand scheme of spice. What makes a chili hot is capsaicin. This is synthesized in the chili during its development. "Chiliheads" often experience pleasure and sometimes even euphoria after ingesting higher levels of capsaicin. They (we) attribute this to the release of endorphins. Capsaicin actually stimulates the same pathways as tarantula venom - obviously without the venomous effects. This makes the brain think it needs endorphins, and we get all jacked up! The endorphin rush makes you feel powerful and in control of everything. Several drugs do this to you (in a more dangerous way), so you can see why some people get to REALLY love peppers and pepper foods. Studies have even shown that these effects of capsaicin can be blocked by naloxene, which competes for space in endorphin receptor sites.

So you've decided to try to eat something spicy - great! Remember to start mild and work your way up. So what if it's a bit much? You don't want to try to cool it off with water - it's completely ineffective. Also ineffective - and worse for the tomorrow - beer. Sadly, lots of people (including me) love eating hot foods after a few brews. So what should you drink? Milk. Cold, cold milk. The casein in milk (a phosphoprotein found in mammalian milk and some dairy products) has a detergent effect on capsaicin. Which basically means it detaches it or cleans it off of tissue, helping it to cool off much faster. This includes all digestive tissues, so tomorrow is as awesome as your spicy foods!

As a side note, check out Heat Seekers on Friday nights on Food Network. It's great watching those guys torture themselves - and for the record, I wouldn't touch some of that stuff... Maybe I would. 

I've got a list right here of some of the spiciest spots in Birmingham, shared with me by Jason Horn (who also has a great blog over at, co-founder of FoodBlog South, which I'm excited about attending early next year. I'll let you know how these visits turn out, and I'll also be cooking some spicy foods and sharing recipes if anyone is interested. Until then, Happy Heat Seeking!

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