The spice of life? Spicy food.

In Greece, where I grew up, everyone is scared of “hot” food. Out of a whole national cuisine of hundreds of dishes, I can only think of one which gets close to piquant: tyrokafteri, a sort of soft cheese spread with just a tiny bit of mildly spicy green pepper. I used to be scared of even that.

This changed when I went to university. I was introduced to properly hot food by Mexicans, Chinese, Indians and some other people who ranged from adventurous to mad. I realised that yes, it does hurt but it’s a good, pleasant kind of pain, and people like it in a benignly masochistic sort of way. I also eventually loved it.

Capsicum Chinense, a.k.a. Habanero

Hot peppers make your food “come alive”, but it’s not just all about the pleasure. They’re also really healthy. There is a wide misconception that these “caustic substances” will ruin your kidneys and make holes in your stomach, but that won’t happen. The peppers’ capsaicin feels like it’s burning you but it’s just an illusion. Its molecules stimulate the same nerve endings that detect heat burn, and that’s that. When the pain goes away, there’s absolutely no damage done. It doesn’t “burn your taste buds out” either – it just deactivates pain receptors in the short term.

On the contrary, it’s been confirmed that capsaicin: lowers blood pressure, reduces cholesterol levels, reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks, speeds up the body’s metabolism (helping you lose weight), releases endorphins – the body’s “feel good” hormones, lowers the risk of cancer, and can act as a painkiller in certain situations.

I confirmed all of the above with abstracts from scientific papers. Go to PubMed and enter the keywords “capsaicin” or “spicy”. Search the archives of major newspapers like the Washington Times and you will only find good things.

The dangers? None.

But like many fresh enthusiasts, I thought it was a simple case of “the spicier the better”. I remember a particularly bad experience at Nando’s: full of bravado, I asked them for the spiciest sauce they do. Their mainstream, family-friendly image did nothing to prepare me for the torture which would ensue. It really hurt. I did my best to hide it beceause I was with company but if I was home I’d probably be screaming and writhing on the floor. So now you know: they’re one of the few places in the UK where “very hot” really does mean very hot.

By the way, there are many theories on what can bring the pain down, but Mythbusters seems to have confirmed milk does the trick:

Spiciness is a bell curve with a pleasure peak that’s different for everyone. Get that “sweet spot” right:

Your forehead will sweat, your lips will tingle with heat, but you’re feeling comfortable. Go beyond that and it can quickly ruin your dinner.

There is a (slightly unscientific) scale to measure food hotness, called the Scoville Scale, invented a long time ago by a chemist called Wilbur Scoville.

Wilbur Scoville

It works more or less like this: For 1 part pepper or sauce, you keep adding water until you can’t detect hotness any more. When you reach x parts water, that’s your Scoville number. Classic Tabasco sauce is at around 2500-5000, pure capsaicin is at more than 15 million.

Until the 80s, pretty much the only hot sauce consumers in the West knew was Tabasco. In the 90s some people started experimenting with hotter peppers. Classic brands such as Blair’s and Dave’s emerged. Very soon, producing the hottest sauce became a game of one-upmanship, reaching ridiculous levels. Some of these new sauces had warnings that they should not come into contact with bare skin, they should not be inhaled directly, and you had to sign a waiver to buy them. As if that wasn’t enough, some producers soon started “cheating” to break records. Instead of growing hotter peppers, they started adding pure capsaicin extract in their sauces. Unless you’re a chili-head for whom normal sauces stopped working, or a real masochist, or a 15-year old out to impress his mates, steer clear of anything above 15,000 Scoville.

McIlhenny does great all-round sauces apart from the classic Tabasco. When I was in the States recently I bought almost every single one. Although Habanero is the hottest of these at 8,000 Scoville, they’re all “consumer grade” so don’t be afraid to experiment. There are some really great flavours there.

Start with small amounts and make things hotter as you get used to them. Experiment with exotic flavours like Tunisian harissa paste and Mexican mole (the Japanese wasabi is a totally different kind of “hot” – it’s vapours than burn the nose rather than the tongue). Eventually you’ll need to make things a little spicier to get the same effect, but that shouldn’t be your aim to begin with. Treat the pepper with respect and you’ll have a wonderful journey.

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