Loving spicy foods isn’t an inborn personality trait; it comes through exposure and culture. What’s the main difference between a person who thrives on atomic hot wings and a person who eschews even mild sauce on their tacos? Lots and lots of practice.
Why We Get a Kick out of Chilies
Although spiciness can come from a variety of different sources, chili peppers are the most common cause of the heat found in Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and Indian foods. The active ingredient in chilies, called capsaicin, is responsible for the heat. Capsaicin causes irritation in the mouth; a burning, fiery sensation that the body perceives as pain. Capsaicin is the same compound that’s found in pepper spray. Different varieties of peppers contain different amounts of capsaicin, resulting in widely different levels of heat. The peppers contain capsaicin in order to defend themselves from hungry mammals, the only animals that can detect it. Most mammals avoid peppers and their attendant pain; humans are unique in that we like a little discomfort with our dinner.
In 1912, a pharmaceutical company employee named Wilbur Scoville devised a test for measuring the capsaicin levels of different varieties of peppers, and he came up with a rating system that placed them all on a hierarchy of heat. The scale is measured in units called Scovilles, with sweet peppers at the bottom of the scale with zero Scovilles, and pure undiluted capsaicin at the top with 16,000,000 Scovilles. Most common peppers fall somewhere between 500 and 50,000 Scovilles. Many people think that the habanero is the hottest pepper in the world, but in fact, the world’s hottest chili is the Naga-Bih Jolokia pepper, grown in India, which registers over a million Scovilles.
Chili peppers are native to the Americas, and they are part of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes and eggplant. During the Age of Exploration, explorers and traders found the peppers and took them all over the world. In Asia and Africa, people had been flavoring their food with ginger, black pepper, cloves, and other spices for years, but they quickly embraced chili peppers into their cuisines, and those tastes still dominate to this day. According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, China, India, and Pakistan are now the largest producers of chilies in the world, even though the peppers were virtually unknown in those countries even 500 years ago.
Practice Makes Perfect
People from countries where food is extremely spicy think nothing of sweating throughout dinner. They’ve built up a tolerance to the heat from chili peppers, and they’re used to it. Many people in America don’t eat spicy foods because they don’t have experience with the flavors, but for a person who wants to begin enjoying them, all it takes is practice.
Starting with small amounts of mild heat is the best way to inure yourself to the discomfort, rather than jumping right to raw habaneros. Try the milder chilies like the poblano pepper, which only contain about 500 Scovilles, or Anaheim chilies, which contain up to 2,500. Both are commonly found in Mexican cuisine, and available at grocery stores. For daily meals, try splashing some Tabasco sauce on eggs, or putting a teaspoon of hot sauce in a bowl of guacamole. Once you’ve become comfortable with the heat from mild peppers, it’s time to move up the Scoville chart to jalapeños (5,000 Scovilles), Serrano peppers (6,000 Scovilles), or cayenne pepper (30,000 Scovilles). As your mouth and digestive tract become accustomed to eating spicy food regularly, peppers that once made you start sweating will begin to seem merely tasty.
While you’re learning to love spicy food, remember to wear gloves while handling raw peppers, because capsaicin will burn anything it encounters—especially hands, eyes, and other sensitive parts of the body. Keep a glass of milk on hand for emergencies, because a chemical in milk called casein can release the capsaicin from your mouth and relieve the burning. Eating spicy foods with rice, mashed potatoes, or bread can also lessen some of the effects, since sugar helps ease the burn. When preparing peppers for homemade dishes, remember that the spiciest parts are the seeds and inner veins, not the flesh itself. It’s a good idea to remove them at first, while you get used to the taste, and then gradually leave in the hot parts as you progress.
One misconception about spicy food is that it can cause stomach ulcers and other digestive issues. While a hot and spicy diet can certainly aggravate existing problems like IBD, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, it cannot bring on the symptoms on its own, and normal, healthy people have nothing to fear. Another false misconception is that spicy food can kill taste buds. In fact, since the capsaicin only affects pain sensors, taste buds are totally safe.
Even if you never work up to fresh habaneros in your salsa, becoming comfortable with hot and spicy foods can open up many culinary horizons. I’ll probably never be an aficionado of Ultra-Insane Nuclear Inferno Sauce or encounter a Naga-Bih Jolokia pepper, but I do love eating Kung Pao chicken and Thai chili chocolate. It makes traveling and sampling regional cuisine that much more exciting, and Super Bowl parties are much more fun when you can actually enjoy the chili. If enjoying spicy food is your goal, just remember—if you can’t stand the heat, stay in the kitchen and keep trying.