Red hot chilies for breakfast? We were aghast at our friend who ordered them at 8 AM in a local restaurant. He swallowed them with fervour, bravado and a smile. ‘Magnificent’! he yelled. It was incomprehensible to me how someone could withstand - never mind enjoy – that kind of raging heat in their belly so early in the morning. Contrast that with my other friend who will send meals back at any hint of spice. Why are we all so different in our reactions to foods and spices that heat up our palate? In any event, at our eatery we cater to all levels of spice tolerance and will make your meal just the way you like it!
“The heat may be all in your head” says Joni Sweet of ‘Thrilist’ magazine. She quotes Chef Bill Phillips, a spicy food expert and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, who states that “Although you feel like it is burning when you eat spicy foods, it’s actually a trick of the mind.” He assures novices that spicy foods do not cause any physical harm to a well-functioning digestive system. The chef explains that fiery food tastes hot due to chemical molecules in the spices, such as ‘capsaicin’, that excite pain receptors on your tongue linked to the sensation of temperature and is not due to burning taste buds. It is more a sense of heat than anything physically awry.
This explains why some people may be more sensitive to hot spices than others. Mentally, they may believe that the spice is burning their insides, which is not true and just serves to exacerbate their feeling of discomfort, making the experience intolerable. Or, like myself, they may just not like the feeling of extreme heat and prefer a cooler palate from less fiery food.
For those who crave spicy hot food, the experience is totally different. But even in their case, they are not born craving Jalapeño peppers. The enjoyment of spiced-up fiery food is definitely an acquired taste. According to Chef Phillips, people become accustomed to hotter and hotter chilies, peppers and spices over time because capsaicin and other spicy food molecules - after exciting the pain receptors on your tongue - temporarily deplete a neurotransmitter called ‘substance P’ that is responsible for sending pain signals to the brain. ('P' is later replenished) This is why people from countries like India or Mexico have such a high tolerance for highly spicy and hot food – they have been eating them for a very long time. It is interesting to note that, because of its ability to turn off pain signals, Capsaicin is also used for medicinal purposes, to relieve the discomfort of extremely painful conditions like arthritis.
The silver lining comes when people become desensitized to the heat and start to enjoy the other tantalizing qualities of hot peppers and spicy treats. For example, some chilies have tropical fruit flavours and tobacco flavours. Indulging in chilies releases endorphins that make people feel happy and jubilant. They can be so addictive that spice fans miss them when they are not part of a meal.
Hot spicy peppers and chilies can be a source of joy to diners who love to walk on the wild side. For those who are still chili-shy, Chef Phillips encourages them to build up a tolerance by starting out small and slow. He suggests trying out milder chilies and when they start to burn less, slowly moving into larger quantities and hotter varieties.
When you come to Rica Salsa, tell us what Mexican food and spices make your senses dance and we will prepare it for you. Hot or not, you will fall in love.