Is it possible to train oneself into tolerating spices?
February 10, 2014 3:06 AM   Subscribe

I like mild to moderately spicy dishes (crispy chilli beef, jalfrezi, chilli-tomato pasta sauce), but anything hotter numbs my mouth to the point where I can't actually taste anything, or worse, unable to eat it. Even if I go to Nandos, I don't want to try anything hotter than the mild piri-piri, because I'm worried I won't enjoy my meal due to the heat. Can I 'train' myself into getting used to spices? And does a higher tolerance enable the flavours, rather than the heat, to come through?
posted by mippy to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
More examples: I can't do tabasco or the hot sauce that you get from Asian grocers (I think it's called sriacha in the US, but is sold as 'hot pepper sauce' here.)
posted by mippy at 3:13 AM on February 10, 2014

Yes. The TRPV1 receptors in your mouth, which signal both hot temperatures and the "heat" of chili (capsaicin), desensitise with repeated exposure to capsaicin. [wiki] The more you eat, the less heat you will feel!
posted by FrereKhan at 3:16 AM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes, you get used to it over time. But if you stop eating spicy stuff you go back to zero again, so you have to keep it up.
posted by zeek321 at 3:21 AM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've increased my tolerance for spiciness by eating spicy foods more often, by adding hot sauce to sandwiches and soups, and by drinking tomato juice (ok, Bloody Marys) with hot sauce.

I found that in some cases, I can enjoy flavors that I couldn't detect before. Also, I'm much more familiar with different types of heat; for example, the sinus-tingle of wasabi vs. the warmth of cayenne pepper powder.

However, in some cases, I still don't taste much. For example, fresh jalapeños just read as "hot" to me, although I really enjoy the heat and smokiness of chipotles (dried jalapeños). Speaking of which, have you ever tried Green Tabasco? It's much milder than traditional Tabasco and it's great on chicken sandwiches.

I do tend to order less-spicy foods at restaurants and save the spicy stuff for home so that I have more control over the level of heat. But I only eat out about once per month and, as zeek321 said, it's easy to lose tolerance if you don't eat spicy foods very often.
posted by neushoorn at 3:56 AM on February 10, 2014

Yes you can. I once had terrible tolerance for spicy food, then I lived with two housemates who insisted on cooking spicy food all. the. time. After a year I was much better at it (although I still didn't, and don't, like spicy food exactly.)
posted by Xany at 4:46 AM on February 10, 2014

I asked a similar question a little while ago. My question was more about building tolerance from *absolute zero*, but maybe some of the tips will be helpful to you:

posted by alchemist at 4:47 AM on February 10, 2014

Yes. During childhood my mother would cook a Mexican style meal once a week and an Indian 'curry' at least once a week. I never had a problem and love chili.

My sister, though, boy, did she complain about chili burn! I remember tears at the dinner-table. To the point where my mother would not add chili or pepper at all to food while cooking.

Nowadays, my sister eats, cooks, and appreciates chili and hot flavours, thanks in part to her marriage to a Mauritian; whose culinary heritage is steeped in chili. She has grown to not only tolerate but appreciate the chili burn flavour and sensation.

Start slow. And good luck!
posted by evil_esto at 4:51 AM on February 10, 2014

For what it's worth, assuming you are in the UK, "hot pepper sauce" is a different thing to sriracha (which you can get in the UK and is labelled "sriracha"). Hot pepper sauce is generally similar to Tabasco (chillis + vinegar), whereas sriracha has garlic and sugar in addition to that.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:55 AM on February 10, 2014

Sorry, more info - I'm fine with wasabi, but I think that's because I knew how to eat it (mix with soy and use as a dip) - unlike a friend of mine who thought it was like any other condiment and ended up with a nosebleed. Chilli in chocolate - fine. Kimchi - fine. But last time I ordered crispy chilli beef - which comes with slices of chillis - I was sniffling by the end of the meal, and it wasn't even so spicy that I couldn't eat it. I made a spinach and potato dish flavoured with a little turmeric and chilli - I ended up putting in what seemed like half a pot of plain yoghurt in to stop the burn.

My dad spent some of his teenage years in Singapore, so unlike some of my friends (I grew up in a place that was very racially segregated and provincial - many of my friends expressed a blanket dislike of 'foreign food', up to and including pizza) we regularly had curries and nasi goring, but I have memories of not being able to eat some of what he cooked and being told off for it.
posted by mippy at 4:55 AM on February 10, 2014

When I was wee tyke, I started with three dabs of hot sauce on my burrito, and worked my way up.

I like things with flavor, but not a lot of heat for heat's sake. I'm not the one who will be eating ghost peppers anytime soon.

Yes, you can train yourself, but I think everyone has a comfort-level.

Everyone has a favorite intersection of taste and heat. Find yours and hang out there, perhaps form a doo-wop group.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:54 AM on February 10, 2014

Try eating some spicy food next time you're sick/ congested. You won't be able to taste it as much and it will also help clear up a stuffy nose!
posted by missriss89 at 6:39 AM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sorry, more info - I'm fine with wasabi, but I think that's because I knew how to eat it (mix with soy and use as a dip) - unlike a friend of mine who thought it was like any other condiment and ended up with a nosebleed.
Actually wasabi and chili peppers/black pepper involve different receptors altogether, so it's perfectly possible to be very sensitive to chili peppers but have no problem with wasabi (e.g. a friend of mine who was sensitive to the merest dab of pepper in her food, but had no problem with lots of strong wasabi).
I believe that you can train yourself into tolerating spicy food. I used to have a great tolerance for spicy food (I loved it) until I moved to the US from India and married a non-Indian. Our food skews less spicy than I was used to earlier, and I find that I've lost a lot of my to former tolerance for spice. I feel that if I could lose a tolerance to spice, it stands to reason that others could gain it. But you'll have to eat spicy food pretty regularly in order to do that.
posted by peacheater at 7:47 AM on February 10, 2014

I'm fine with wasabi, but I think that's because I knew how to eat it

And probably because it's not the same thing at all as capsaicin, which is the chemical that gives most "spicy" foods their kick. Wasabi is a species of horseradish, an organosulfur compound which is found both in horseradish and mustard but entirely unrelated to the capsaicin found in chilies. Ever note that when you eat a chili pepper, the burn stays in your mouth, but when you eat wasabi, the burn goes right up your nose? That's why: different chemicals, different behaviors.

But yes, you can get yourself used to foods with capsaicin by eating them regularly. Just start with something you can enjoy, eat more of it, and gradually work your way up to more exciting fare. I wouldn't push things too hard, but I think with even moderate dedication you should find yourself enjoying noticeably spicier foods by the end of the year.

If all you're worried about is the taste, this will work just fine. But if you find that spicy foods give you heartburn, that's not something that you can acclimate yourself around. Different problem.
posted by valkyryn at 7:48 AM on February 10, 2014

Yes, you can train yourself to tolerate/like spicy food. Mexican babies and kids reject spice when they first taste it. You can also lose your tolerance (that's happening to me, as my partner does not like spicy food).

Mexican kids love spicy candies. The sugar and salt help to offset the spice, and it's an easy way to create a tolerance for spice (it's actually very addictive). My favorites when I was a kid were tamarindo candies and fruits with sprinkled chile (Tajín is the best).

Tip: never drink soda to stop the burn. It makes it much worse!
posted by clearlydemon at 8:40 AM on February 10, 2014

The great thing about hot sauce and sriracha is that you can add to taste. I think the advice to work your way up is great.

As for being worried that you can't enjoy eating straight up sliced chilis? Assuming we're talking about chili peppers and not bell peppers, who cares? Isn't that pretty normal? I grew up in a place where the cuisine is spicy, and in school my friends and I used to have jalapeno pepper eating contests. Because, yeah, eating peppers straight up like that is severely spicy!

Often, in dishes which come with whole chilis as part of the dish, you're not actually meant to eat the chilis.

Another tip: have spicy meals with beer.
posted by Sara C. at 9:37 AM on February 10, 2014

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