Spicy food paradox
February 10, 2019 12:25 AM   Subscribe

Do people that enjoy extremely hot and spicy food a) enjoy and relish the extreme spiciness or b) are so immune to the extreme spiciness that they don't actually feel it to the same extent?
posted by iamsuper to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some are a, some are b, some are both (a and b aren’t mutually exclusive).
posted by iamkimiam at 1:16 AM on February 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

For me, it's both. I feel disappointed when food that could have been spicy isn't, like there's something missing from the flavor profile. And because I like spicy food, I eat more of it, so I can better tolerate it. I don't know if I would say I enjoy "extremely" spicy food, like those people who collect hot sauce bottles with skulls on the label or make pilgrimages to random little chicken shops with legendarily deadly dishes. I think that at that level, people are either into the challenge of eating something as spicy as possible, or else they're specifically drawn to the spiciness more than any other aspect of the flavor.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 1:19 AM on February 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

I enjoy and relish the extreme spiciness of extremely spicy food, provided that it's there in balance with other dimensions of deliciousness; the prospect of consuming pure capsaicin or allyl isothiocyanate or piperine is no more attractive to me than that of consuming pure sucrose or citric acid or table salt, and it's every bit as possible to overheat or underheat a flavour as to oversalt or undersalt or oversweeten or undersweeten it.

As a result of experience with eating extremely spicy foods, I am able to do so with less apparent suffering than people I know who don't regularly eat such foods. I'm not convinced that this has got anything to do with feeling it less - if I eat a hot chili pepper I'll drool and hiccup and sweat at least as much as the next man; I think it has more to do with being willing to accept the consequences of a choice whose likely consequences I'm already quite familiar with.

As the great man said, the trick is not minding that it hurts.
posted by flabdablet at 2:29 AM on February 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Both? But for me the heat has to be balanced and part of the flavour profile of a dish, not just a lot of hot sauce on top of things.

And less heat is fine if the flavour profile is still right. For example I like hot chillie but if I cook for others I’ll make it less hot and focus on other spices. If that’s missing that’s always disappointing. For example, about 15 years ago I was living in the UK and went over to my aunt‘s house for dinner one night and I smell curry and she tells me it’s got quite a kick to it. Now I wasn’t expecting a very hot dish because I know my uncle can’t eat very hot food, but I was expecting a bit of heat and at least an interesting spice profile. Well, still waiting for the kick and to be honest, it was quite bland. I now live in a country where the traditional palate is devoid of any hot food. So whenever I eat Thai or Chinese food here, specifically dishes that I’d expect to have a bit of heat to them, and I prepare myself to be disappointed because all kinds of things are labelled hot that barely register as mildly spicy to me.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:32 AM on February 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

The phrase "hurts so good" comes to mind here.

At my favorite restaurant, I order food "Thai hot", i e., hot by Thai standards rather than wimpier American standards.
posted by she's not there at 2:48 AM on February 10, 2019

I love spicy food and find that when the afterburn starts, the only way to delay and/or manage the pain is to keep shoveling more spicy food into my mouth.
posted by Morpeth at 2:56 AM on February 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Definitely both. I like the spiciness, and also I have a higher tolerance for spiciness.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:41 AM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love spicy food, and one of the concepts I learned about which helped me understand why someone wouldn't is that of "supertasters". My parents are from India, and I grew up on Indian food. When I eat some foods, say creamy mashed potatoes, it tastes like absolutely nothing to me. I spent a good portion of my life wondering why folks crave them so much. Realizing that individual variance in how people taste food is not just a matter of tasting "less or more", but tasting "different", made me understand. Folks who love those creamy mashed potatoes may be picking up on complexity that I am taste blind to. Similarly, that increased sensitivity might make spicy food taste like an unbalanced assault on the senses.

Also, the English language doesn't really have a way to disambiguate the word "spicy". It's interchangeably used to describe something made with lots of spices, like curry, and something made with lots of capsaicin, like hot sauce. If you don't like the taste of curry, that's probably a difficult thing to change, but as flabdablet alluded to, you can learn to enjoy capsaicin. My wife, whose background is Irish/German had zero tolerance for hot spicy food prior to us being together. Exposure to my cooking and tastes over the last years has her enjoying the level of heat my family cooks with.

My theory is this is because capsaicin based spiciness is not entirely about taste. Capsaicin binds to your pain receptors, triggering all the physiological responses associated with pain without putting you in any danger. A little heat keeps you on your toes, and thrill seeking levels of heat are no different to me than riding a roller coaster. The fear and anticipation of that first bite, the rush of adrenaline during, and the release of endorphins that follow are all part of the ride.
posted by AaRdVarK at 5:12 AM on February 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

Both for me. Not only do I generally enjoy spiciness but peppers have a wide and varied flavor profile and their preparation enhances that. Habanero are very fruity, cascabel are very herbal with sugary sweetness etc. But also the heat from peppers brings out a huge variety of flavors present but masked in dishes. So sometimes I add literal drops of hot sauce to better enjoy the flavor of the thing as opposed to masking it.
posted by chasles at 5:35 AM on February 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I feel like my relationship with chiles is a lot like my relationship with dark chocolate, or with stinky cheese, if those are things you can understand or identify with a little better. It's one part "I can tolerate this {heat, bitterness, smell} better than others," one part "It comes along with rich flavors that I absolutely love," and one part "Sometimes a really intense experience is fun to have."
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:26 AM on February 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

For me, adding heat is like adding salt -- it makes all the other flavors in the dish taste better/bigger and it adds a little something that otherwise you can tell is missing. I also wouldn't say that I like it to hurt exactly, but I do like how spiciness adds to the intensity of the experience of eating.

I do not have a great sense of taste, though (well, my sense of taste is ok, but I have a lousy sense of smell, which of course affects it).

So both a) and b), but like 75% for reason a) and 25% for reason b).
posted by rue72 at 6:39 AM on February 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Both for me, although I'm not nearly as much as a chili-head as some. But there's definitely something to differing tolerances. Some years ago, I deliberately built up a tolerance over several months, prior to a trip to Buffalo and an attempt to eat a plate of the Anchor Bar's suicide wings. (I was successful.) In doing so, I was able to work up to eating six of the hottest wings at my local wing joint. Since then, I haven't kept up my tolerance as much, and the third-hottest wings (out of twelve or so) at my local place are plenty hot enough for me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:59 AM on February 10, 2019

For me, it's both.

I find spicy food exciting, especially the particular flavors that come with different hot peppers/chiles (jalapeños have a very different flavor than scotch bonnets, ghost peppers have a very different flavor from fatali chiles, etc). There is an endorphin rush just like after a good, hard run. Spicy food eater's high.

But, that being said, the more capsaicin you eat, the more resistance you build to it. Super hot chiles will still taste hot as hell but you will start to find hot sauce that most people find "hot" doesn't taste as overwhelming to you. It's still spicy, but you get to enjoy the flavor a bit more because your body is having slightly less of a physical reaction to the heat.

Also, read up about "super tasters". People who love spicy food are usually folks on the opposite end of the spectrum of super tasters - they can't taste as well, so they need and seek out strong flavors in their food.
posted by nightrecordings at 7:07 AM on February 10, 2019

Definitely both!

I enjoy the spiciness and it tastes exciting to me. As others have said, it intensifies other flavors for me, rather than masks them (at the right level).

What that right level is has changed since I moved away from India and married a Eastern European man. Both our sweet spots for added spice have changed in opposite directions and converged somewhat. So what was pleasantly spicy for me is now painful for me, and vice-versa for him.
posted by peacheater at 7:29 AM on February 10, 2019

I’ve been tricked into eating spicy food way too many times by spicy-loving people who sincerely told me something wasn’t spicy at all. Which leads me to believe that you get sensitized to it over time.
posted by bleep at 7:55 AM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

For me, adding heat is like adding salt -- it makes all the other flavors in the dish taste better/bigger

Wow, I’m amazed to read this! I’ve always been super-sensitive to chilli, and for me, when something has any more than the faintest waving of chilli in it, I can detect literally no other taste.

In fact, I can detect no taste whatsoever, because chilli is not a taste, it is pure pain, which blocks out any other sensation in my mouth. So even a tiny amount of chilli leaves me aware of no flavour whatsoever.
posted by penguin pie at 8:41 AM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’ve been tricked into eating spicy food way too many times by spicy-loving people who sincerely told me something wasn’t spicy at all. Which leads me to believe that you get sensitized to it over time.

I've been the sincere other party in this scenario many times. There is an overlap between my partner's "too spicy to enjoy" range and my "not spicy enough for me to notice it's spicy" range.

Neither of us ate much spicy food as a kid, and we both tried to teach ourselves to like it as adolescents, which worked for me but not for her at all. So, desensitization seems to be possible but not guaranteed.
posted by aws17576 at 8:43 AM on February 10, 2019

I think it happens if you enjoy the sensation but won't happen if you don't enjoy the sensation because you avoid it (me).
posted by bleep at 8:49 AM on February 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I eat extremely spicy foods. Actually, I add a lot of hot sauce aka pepper sauces. I order my food in restaurants, Chinese restaurants in particular, extra spicy. Most restaurants will not put too much spice on. I dip my french fries, my grilled cheese, my egss, everything gets dipped in the hot sauce. I no longer will even answer the question, "Is this food hot?" because I cannot tell what your level of hot is.

I am in it for the endorphin rush. I love when my hair and teeth sweat. It is the runner's high. Having said that, I have had food that was stupid hot and not good. I have had people try to prank me by serving really hot food and not telling me and I did not even notice. Expectations are more important than tolerance levels.

Team A here although I have built up a tolerance or accept the discomfort.
posted by AugustWest at 8:53 AM on February 10, 2019

I appreciate the way certain spicy flavors--and there has to be flavor in addition to the fire!--actually taste, and complement the rest of the dish or meal. Similar to someone in a recent AskMe, one of my favorite flavor combinations is very spicy + fatty/cheesy (spicy creamy Thai or Indian curries, jalapeno poppers, hot sauce on eggs, atomic hot wings dipped in blue cheese dressing, 5-alarm chili with sour cream & cheddar, etc.). I know this is what I like because I've experience pure spiciness without much flavor, and spicy flavors I don't like (hello, certain modern jalapeno strains, and certain brands of chili crisp).

I do definitely feel the spiciness, and appreciate the tingle of localized pain as well as the side effects of my body responding to "Hey, pain!" with "Whee flood of fun chemicals!".

However, I have noticed that I don't experience/perceive spiciness the same way everyone else does. I suspect that's just a normal variation among humans, because I know people who find black pepper too spicy and people who can eat peppers I consider inedible and ask for more, and plenty of people in the range in between. But I did learn to make someone else taste the chili before I serve it to guests, because I have on multiple occasions served chili I thought didn't qualify as spicy at all, but guests experienced on the medium-high level of spiciness.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:50 AM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Both. Like a lot of folks here, I love the heat and crave it when the other flavors call for it. As a kid I was not able to tolerate spicy food at all, like - onions were too much for me, let alone jalapeños. As I've gotten older my tolerance has increased and I'm less bothered by the heat and more able to appreciate the associated flavors. It just doesn't burn me the way that it used to.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:53 AM on February 10, 2019

I'm another both, although I grew up with spicy food. There is a level of heat at which I'm no longer capable of enjoying it, but even after years of eating Lao, Burmese and Jamaican food I've never been *served* food that was too spicy for me to enjoy it - just accidentally created it myself. I'm far more likely to take offense at things that are very sweet or salty. I have a coworker who finds a dash of paprika too spicy and is therefore not allowed to try my cooking.

I also very much enjoy bitter things within a certain spectrum of bitter.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:28 AM on February 10, 2019

I grew up on a diet which was essentially heat-free. After many years of more adventurous adult eating, I now find some things only moderately spicy that some of my friends find unpleasantly hot. So you can definitely get used to it. For me it's mostly about flavor rather than about the rush. But there was one Thai place I used to occasionally go to which the NYT described as "blurring the lines between a meal and a [BDSM] scene." There was definitely an endorphin aspect to that place. But the food was also extremely tasty. It was a kind of delightful torture in which the excellent flavor lured you on to keep eating food at the edge of your spice tolerance, which then gave you the rush. I expect that would only apply to people in a certain range of heat tolerance, though. Others would just find it unpleasantly hot, or too mild (!).
posted by praemunire at 12:03 PM on February 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

A, and some B, and definitely C (described at the end), specifically for capsaicin-spicy.

I eat a gloriously hot lunch on Wednesdays, at a Thai place that we have trained. The drug effect is very important, eliciting an immediate slightly dazed aspect, a certain somatic bliss, with anecdotally measurable loss of dexterity. We've noticed a short-term habituation to spicy food thereafter. By about Saturday, I'm closer to a normal perception of spiciness.

There's a longer term adaption. From time to time, one of our cohort has to depart for weeks at at time, and while they are gone it's basically impossible to get our mutually-agreed upon dosage. The absentee eventually returns, and the first week or two is a shock.

The habitation is specific to particular regions of the body. It's always a really bad idea to aerosolize the soup into your nasal cavity ("Keep you chin up and don't slurp"), or to get it into your eyes. My mouth, throat and stomach adapt quickly, but the further down the canal you go, the less habituated things are.

There is one other effect that we are tracking, which I referenced as C. When the very first course of the meal is anomalously hot, the rest of the meal is often startlingly savory, even if the dishes are not particularly hot. It happens so often after a particular appetizer that we call it the "One Bite" effect (after Miang Kham). It's makes you say things like "Gawd this is good today", only you say it for all subsequent dishes.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:22 PM on February 10, 2019

I am an extreme spice fanatic, and to ramble a little about my experience: basically no meal is complete for me without Carolina Reaper flakes at minimum. I have a jar at home and at work. I've never tasted anything that I'd characterize as 'too spicy' and that includes all the hot sauces that are supposedly so crazy, and I've gone to conventions for them. Either I have a high tolerance, or I really just enjoy spiciness, I dont think it's possible for me to judge. However, I feel like I can always detect even a little bit of heat and enjoy that too. I love the different flavors of different hot peppers, and I also feel like spiciness amplifies the other flavors in the dish as well.

But the one thing I havent heard described by others is the sort of synesthesia feeling experience I get, like there is an entirely unique dimension (almost a visual/spatial experience) to food that is spicy. When I suddenly take a bite with no flakes, it is like the meal drops to 2D from 3D. But Im a total outlier on this whole subject from what I can tell...
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:59 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think there's a good argument for differentiating between "hot", "spicy", and "hot & spicy".
As AaRdVarK said above, English is bad at disambiguate between the hotness of capsaicin and the use of lots of spice or a blend of multiple spices.

My personal preference is toward "hot & spicy" where I can discern the actual flavor profile of peppers and spices. Overuse of things like pure chili oil or tossing a full scotch bonnet pepper in the mix tends to dull the other flavors. The thing is, the more "hot" food I've become used to, the more tolerance I have for pure hotness and I can discern flavors even when encountering high scoville ratings. So to answer your question, it's a little bit of both.
posted by mikeh at 11:40 AM on February 11, 2019

I am A and B. I like and experience the hotness. I also kind of like getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist. I sometimes enjoy a bracingly cold or hot shower. When I get a back rub, I like to experience a level of pain most would not, which usually directly translates into me feeling that much better after.

You can damage nerves by eating spicy food which will literally make the food not so hot for you, but in general, people that eat spicy food are experiencing the hotness.

Also, have you noticed that most spicy food comes from countries that are super hot? Eating hot food will remind you to stay hydrated, kills germs, keeps food from spoiling, and masks the flavor of spoiling food. I mention this in case your question comes from an interest in spicy food in general.

I make my own hot sauce after reading a bunch of labels, realizing it was mostly blended carrot, onion, hot pepper, water, and vinegar. You just blend them. I often branch out now and put in fruits, herbs, garlic, and or ginger.
posted by xammerboy at 10:48 PM on February 11, 2019

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