How do people eat hot peppers at almost every meal?
September 5, 2006 5:22 AM   Subscribe

How do people in certain regions (e.g. Sichuan, Korea, Thailand) eat super-spicy foods at almost every meal and not be in constant discomfort?

I love eating foods that are high in flavor as well as spicy heat, like kimchi jigae (spicy kimchi stew), larb (minced meat with thai chiles), mirchi ka salan (South Indian curry based on lots of whole chiles), and the various Sichuan red-oil dishes.

However, I'm often in agony for some part of the day after. The actual burning on the way out isn't too bad, but it's the part leading up to that: the remains of the hot foods burning their way through my digestive tract, causing a painful aching in my large intestine.

As an American, I can eat these spicy foods once every few days, and alternate with something milder. However, in countries where this cuisine is ubiquitous and traditional, people seem to eat this stuff constantly. How do they do it? Do they just become immune to the internal effects of capsacain after eating it so much?

Also, what about kids? In the US, kids generally aren't offered super-spicy foods. At what age do kids start eating lots of chiles in these countries? And what about food-preparers? I've seen Indian housewives and cooks squatting on the ground, preparing massive quantities of chiles on a stone grinding apparatus, of course with their bare hands. This seems like the quantity of hot chile that won't even come off with soap and scrubbing. Are there a lot more incidents of accidental eye/genital contamination with hot peppers in these countries? Or are people just more careful, or immune to these effects?

One last question: is there anything I can do to mitigate the intestinal pain? Some food or drug I can eat along with the spicy food?
posted by rxrfrx to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Chili. Chili.

Chile is a country.
posted by unSane at 5:29 AM on September 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

And, yes, it's acclimation (?acclimitisation?).

I'm pretty much immune to hot food now, having cooked and eaten it for years. I've never had something that was too hot too eat. Once or twice I've had food that was unpleasantly hot because it had no other flavours. The only time I've had the ring of fire was after gorging on home-made chili pickle, spooned from the jar... yeah, I know, I know.
posted by unSane at 5:33 AM on September 5, 2006

If you keep eating spicy food you will build up a tolerance for it. It really is as simple as that. You are having an allergic reaction to the spice, which you feel as "hot". Over increased and frequent exposure you become less susceptible to the reaction (it takes more and more to get the same effect).

Many Westerners don't eat it hot or frequently enough to build that tolerance. But it is easy to do and doesn't take as long as you might think (say weeks). There is no cultural bias when it comes to handling spicy food other than eating a lot of spicy food.

Milk is very good at cooling down the sensation of heat. Don't use water, which just spreads the spice around nicely.
posted by qwip at 5:33 AM on September 5, 2006

It's nitpick day, but the mouth's response to hot food is NOT an allergic reaction. Please.
posted by unSane at 5:47 AM on September 5, 2006

Chile is a country.

It's also the word for "hot pepper" in Spanish, and lacks the ambiguity of the "chili/chilli" spelling in English, so I prefer to use it. So sue me.

the mouth's response to hot food is NOT an allergic reaction

Honestly, I'm a little surprised that anybody thinks that this has to do with allergic reactions. But not that surprised.

Also, to clarify, I have no problem with the heat in my mouth. In fact, I kind of like it when it get so hot that it's more painful than hot. I'm asking for assistance with mitigating the intestinal pain.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:52 AM on September 5, 2006

Eat more hot food, and more often. I am British and was largely raised on hot food (Indian, Thai etc) and I don't suffer these intestinal problems. I would hypothesise that milk might help with that, though (can't stand the stuff, myself, but if it helps with the mouth burning perhaps it would also help the intestines).
posted by altolinguistic at 5:56 AM on September 5, 2006

Do you think its possible you have some other intestinal complaint (maybe an ulcer) that spicy food aggravates?
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 5:57 AM on September 5, 2006

I wouldn't think it's impossible that there's something being aggravated, but as soon as I empty my bowels of the spicy remains, I feel fine. So I doubt it.

(Thanks for all of the responses so far)
posted by rxrfrx at 6:05 AM on September 5, 2006

I think that genetics must play a small role here; if parents have GI disorders that preclude anything spicy their kids will be less likely to like spicy food. And might even grow up into the same disorder. Personally my parents have spent a lot of time on highly restricted diets and I can't stand bland food (get a lot of heartburn though).

Is accidental genital contamination an actual problem anyone has with spices? I can see not wanting to get chilis in little cuts on your finger.. but I think most women who cook a lot for their whole lives are pretty immune to this kind of pain.
posted by shownomercy at 6:22 AM on September 5, 2006

Chile is a country.

It's also a spelling for a "hot pepper" according to any quality dictionary.
posted by grouse at 6:28 AM on September 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I wasn't raised on hot food, but acquired the taste for it as an adult. I don't have those intestinal problems at all, never had even when I was new to hot foods.

I've noticed I can tolerate hot food in the mouth MUCH better than when I was new to it, but I wonder whether habituating to hot food would even work for the intestinal problems. Maybe you're in the sensitive-intestine end of the spectrum? (IANAD, clearly.) I've met some people in parts of the world where hots are regularly eaten who don't like to eat hot food - maybe they have your sensitivity.

Bread, rice, etc. also help tone down the hot feeling in the mouth - maybe they would help the process in the intestine?

As for handling the hot stuff, I would imagine people who do it regularly have acquired a sort of sense for how to avoid getting it in sensitive areas. When I first started cooking with hot peppers, I sometimes burned my eyes, but I quickly learned to be very aware, and I haven't done that in a long time.
posted by n'muakolo at 6:28 AM on September 5, 2006

Capsaicin is the main spicy bit in chili peppers. Milk, or other foods high in fats help to neutralize the burning.
posted by antifuse at 6:32 AM on September 5, 2006

I wasn't raised on hot food, but acquired the taste for it as an adult.


I have lived in Korea (off and on, mostly on) since 1996. I'm not ethnically Korean. I eat Korean food every day (and tend to like it hotter than most Koreans do).

That said, Korea has one of the highest (if not the highest -- I don't have stats at hand) stomach cancer rates in the OECD. I think it's actually the soju and the pollution more than the food, but there you go.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:43 AM on September 5, 2006

By the way, I wouldn't characterize Korean food as 'super-spicy'. Super-salty, yes, and heavy on the garlic, but the stuff that people eat daily doesn't tend to be all that hot.

Or maybe I've just burned away my tastebuds.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:46 AM on September 5, 2006

Yeah, it's all about getting used to it. I'll never forget my first bowl of ma po doufu at the "Little Omei" Szechwan restaurant in Taipei: I can still see the surface covered with deadly little red flakes, and after I finished it I didn't know if I'd survive the night. After a month I was gobbling the stuff down as if it were cornflakes, and when I got back to the States it took at least a year before I could eat the denatured stuff they serve here in "Chinese" restaurants without a terrible pang of regret. So just increase your intake, and enjoy!
posted by languagehat at 6:47 AM on September 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

One of my Thai cookbooks has a recipe for a soup with no chilis. In the intro for it, the author mentions that it is a common food for Thai people who can't handle the spiciness of most cuisine there, and that such people do actually exist. For the most part, I think it's acclimation that allows people to enjoy foods that spicy, but some people are still more sensitive than others.
posted by Schismatic at 6:58 AM on September 5, 2006

I've googled around and I can't find a reference, but I remember these kinds of things quite well, and what I remember is this:

There have been a couple of studies of using capsaicin as a pain reliever, specifically for chemo induced canker sores in cancer patients. What was found from the studies was that it actually worked quite well, but had to be used correctly. If the burning sensation was allowed to fully subside between applications then the body adapated to the stimulation and needed more to make it burn more--essentially raising the pain threshold in the mouth, and therefore making the sores less seem to be less painful. If, however, capsaicin was added to capsaicin in the mouth before things had calmed down, the burning just got worse and worse, no adaptation occurred, and no pain relief was acheived.

You would seem to be on the right training regimine.
posted by OmieWise at 7:07 AM on September 5, 2006

I'm another one who never ate chiles at all until after I became an adult, now eats them a lot, and has never experienced the intestinal problem described.

I suspect there's something special about the intestine in question.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:12 AM on September 5, 2006

Also, what about kids? In the US, kids generally aren't offered super-spicy foods. At what age do kids start eating lots of chiles in these countries?

Korean-American here. I remember my mother rinsing off my kimchi when I was a wee one (two and three). It was still spicy, but dunking a piece of kimchi in a cup of water seemed to take the bite off some.

Growing up with spicy foods is definitely an advantage, though. For instance, I may get heartburn from coffee or marinara sauce, but never from kimchi jigae or the like.
posted by brina at 7:17 AM on September 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I loved hot food all my life and ate it whenever possible as a child.

But instead of growing immune, I developed severe intestinal problems in my mid-twenties, which are practically nonexistent if I don't eat spicy food. So, while some people might grow tolerant of spicy food, it seems that one can grow "intolerant" of them as well.
posted by milarepa at 7:23 AM on September 5, 2006

While reading baby books (books about babies, not books for babies) I came accross an interesting tidbit about spices and hot foods. The book suggests to start adding a little bit of spice to a babies diet very early on, perhaps a few months after they start eating solid food. As someone who loves spicy foods this is important to me, because I want my daughter to enjoy spicy dishes at a young age.
posted by Vindaloo at 7:49 AM on September 5, 2006

It's the salted fish/meat and picked vegetables that makes for higher rates of stomach cancer in countries like Korea (and Japan).

I was raised on the American meat/potatoes/sugar diet but these days I think Tabasco's too bland to bother with and I make sloppy joes with habaneros so I can taste it. I befriend Chinese people so when I go to Asian restaurants with them they'll take my order for "5 STAR SPICY" seriously. I use Mace instead of Listerine. My vomit strips paint and makes potholes in cement. Can't say any spicy food has ever really bothered me, though I've certainly become more tolerant over the years - it kind of feels like a mild addiction, now that I think about it.
posted by kcm at 8:02 AM on September 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Count me with those who are skeptical it's just acclimation. I didn't eat spicy foods when I was growing up. Mom didn't like them, and since she did the cooking, we didn't get exposed to much. Black pepper was all but taboo, onions and garlic were used sparingly, pepperoni and salsa were an apocalypse.

After I lived away from home, the story was definitely different. I'd buy all kinds of sauces and peppers and I loved the hot stuff. And for years, any intestinal consequences were rare. But eventually, the ring of fire became a painful reality.

It may be they go along with other issues rather than being caused by the spicy stuff itself. But whatever the case, it certainly isn't true that I've acclimated. If anyone can acclimate , I should have by now, but if anything, the reverse has happened.
posted by weston at 9:48 AM on September 5, 2006

Maybe if you stopped eating food that burned up your intestines for three days following the meal, and started eating slightly less spicy food that your body could tolerate every day, that you'd build up a tolerance to the spiciness and could therefore eat spicier food more often? (Because yes, I also think it mainly has to do with acclimatisation.)
posted by Kololo at 10:31 AM on September 5, 2006

"Also, what about kids? In the US, kids generally aren't offered super-spicy foods."

In this Kids and Spicy Foods thread, I linked to this New York Times article, which notes that
"Historically, there was no such thing as children's food," said Andrew F. Smith, who teaches culinary history at the New School in New York. "Babies would eat what adults ate, chopped up, until Gerber created baby food in 1927."
Also, the instructor at one of my hospital's parenting classes cited studies showing higher tolerance for spicy food in children whose mothers eat spicy food while brest-feeding. (Of course, the children might gain much more tolerance by eating spicy foods themselves once they're old enough...)
posted by mbrubeck at 11:02 AM on September 5, 2006

Acclimation theories aside, I would suggest a visit to the doctor to discuss the issue. If you have been eating spicy food for some time and are always suffering from intestinal discomfort, then it would be good to make sure there is nothing amiss. I'm not trying to be a panic-monger, I'm sure you're fine, but its a good thing to get checked out. Colitis or Crohn's are increasingly common these days. The doctor may of course just tell you to stop eating spicy food :)
posted by Joh at 2:12 PM on September 5, 2006

The stomach generates a new lining every four days. On the other hand, it's well accepted that your sense of taste dulls as you age.
posted by kcm at 4:49 PM on September 5, 2006

"Capsaicin is a powerful irritant; initial administration causes intense pain. Prolonged treatment causes insensitivity to painful stimuli and induces selective degeneration of certain primary sensory neurons." (Merck Index, 12th Ed. 1989, p.1811)

I seem to remember from another source, that at least some of the neurons can at least partially regenerate, but I think it's extremely likely that a diet of really hot food dulls your ability to taste a wide range of flavors, and permanently impairs one's sense of taste over time.

Rene Dubos claims, in Man Adapting, that, on autopsy, Thai intestines resemble those of sufferers of chronic intestinal parasites, because of the spiciness of the Thai diet.

I like fresh horseradish in sour cream as a dip, and one day, lacking my sour cream, used kefir (Helios brand) instead, by dinnertime an hour later the kefir had completely abolished the heat of the horseradish, and I seem to remember it did the same with chiles. I think the effect depends mainly on the living funguses in the kefir. If I were you, I'd try drinking 4 ozs. before indulging in my favorite South Asian cuisines.
posted by jamjam at 6:03 PM on September 5, 2006

Stav's right that Corean food isn't super spicy, and most Coreans mix in some kalguksu or something pretty often (mild stuff).

Kids here often resist kimchi and other spicies, though; I know a lot of moms dipping kimchi in water before forcing their littluns to eat it.

As for being "super salty" (stavros again), I think that's regional. Down in Jeolla-do (I was just visiting Shinan-gun & the region), I noticed the food is much saltier than up in Seoul and Kyeonggi-do.

As for the high stomach cancer rates, it's true, but all reliable research actually says that capsaicin and chili peppers are GOOD for the stomach (unless eaten to true extremes, like a kg of kimchi a day or some crazy shit). I think the stomach cancer rate here is related to the heavy drinking and smoking, exacerbated by the pollution of Corean cities (I played basketball outside yesterday and blew black snot out of my nose for hours. Yich).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:31 PM on September 5, 2006

As for being "super salty" (stavros again), I think that's regional. Down in Jeolla-do (I was just visiting Shinan-gun & the region), I noticed the food is much saltier than up in Seoul and Kyeonggi-do.

This is true for the most part (I live in Jeollanam-do), although I will add that it's becoming worryingly common for restaurants all over the place to add way too much MSG to their food, which is probably only semi-related.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:34 PM on September 5, 2006

jamjam: that kefir anecdote is interesting. I might have to try some. Yogurt certainly doesn't have an effect, but there's no yeast living in there.

If you'd just said that "kefir made things less spicy" I'd just say that it kept the capsaicin dissolved as it passed through your mouth, but if it worked better than sour cream, that's rather interesting.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:51 AM on September 6, 2006

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