Some Like It Hot
It’s early in our relationship, and my husband-to-be is about to do the human equivalent of a bizarre courtship ritual. We’re at an Indian restaurant in Montreal and he orders the Vindaloo and says to the waiter, “make it extra hot.” It’s like I’m watching BBC Planet Earth and the British narrator says, “this Homo Sapien male wants to impress his girlfriend with his capacity to eat spicy food. Let’s see what happens.” The waiter looks down and smiles one of those, ‘oh, you, poor innocent child’ smiles and asks, “are you sure sir, it’s extremely spicy…” My boyfriend grins back and tells the waiter that he’s Latin and used to spicy food. He can take it – BRING IT ON!
Why do so many people find pleasure from spicy food when it clearly makes you suffer?
Vindaloo is the spiciest dish in a cuisine already celebrated for its spiciness. And this dish promises to be hot as a Super Nova. I tentatively watch him take the first bite. All’s good, I think, but then he leans back in his chair and looks at me with bloodshot, panicked eyes that are quickly filling with tears. He’s tomato-red, snot is running down from his flared nostrils, he’s sweating, and he yells to me, “I can’t hear anything. I’ve gone deaf!!”
Yes, I still married him, but I did find myself asking, ‘Why did he want to do that’?!
The truth is, he’s part of a growing number of North American spice evangelists who seek the Holy Ghost of heat. The hot sauce industry is one of the 10 fastest-growing industries in the U.S., the restaurant chain Chipotle is popping up all over the place, and YouTube’s FIRST WE FEAST: HOT ONES, where Hollywood celebrities are interviewed over platters of increasingly spicy chicken wings, is hugely popular. (Yes, it’s true, we find it funny to watch celebrities squirm with discomfort). But, North America is on fire with a chili pepper obsession and, compared to the rest of the world, we are late to worship at its red hot alter. Chili peppers are eaten by a quarter of the earth’s population every day, in countries across the globe!
But why do so many people find pleasure from spicy food when it clearly makes you suffer?
Pleasure and pain are the flip sides of each other and spicy food illuminates this proverb clearly. The heat-creating compound in spicy food is called capsaicin (cap-SAY-sin) which is found in hot peppers. And like sexual pleasure, the experience from capsaicin is “all in your head.” Chef Bill Phillips is a spicy foods’ expert and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America (where Anthony Bourdain studied). He says that “although you feel like it’s burning [when you eat spicy foods], it’s actually a trick of the mind, adding that spicy foods do not cause any physical harm to a well-functioning digestive system.”
Capsaicin makes you think the food is hot and your mouth is on fire, but you’re not actually being burned. Small amounts of the molecule cause a sensation of burning as pain receptors in the membranes (especially the mucous membranes that line the mouth, throat, stomach, and eyes) react to it, warning that you have potentially done something a little dangerous. But you’re not actually burning off your taste buds – it just feels that way.
As the saying goes, ‘what you eat says a lot about you’ and people who have a passion for spicy food tend to be thrill seekers.
And here’s the flip side. You can get buzzed on capsaicin. The molecule causes your brain to release endorphins that can give you a natural high. And some research suggests that in higher levels, the chemical can have mildly hallucinogenic effects – which might explain why my husband-to-be was chasing the burn (He loves to get high).
He’s also from Chile and chili peppers originated from the New World. Mayans already used chili peppers over 9,000 years ago as stimulants, but it was Christopher Columbus who brought them back to Europe after his travels. Yes, Columbus was actually seeking a new trade route to Asia with a hankering for black peppercorns, but he got chili peppers instead.
And, like Columbus, certain personalities seek out spicy food more than others. As the saying goes, ‘what you eat says a lot about you’ and people who have a passion for spicy food tend to be thrill seekers. Building on studies from the ’80s that showed a connection between the pleasure of roller coasters and love of spice, researchers discovered that people who like roller coasters, action movies and seek out adventure, are about six times more likely to enjoy the burn of a spicy meal. And, back to my mating ritual story, men who like spicy foods have higher testosterone levels according to research, published in the journal Physiology & Behavior.
My homo-sapien husband-to-be’s hearing did come back after about five minutes. He looked at me with glistening, slightly-buzzed eyes, “It’s all coooll, I feel good,” he said, “do you want a bite?”
Pleasure really is the spice of life and some like it hot, and others, even hotter.