I love spicy food. I’m that friend who everyone looks at funny because she’s asking for her curry to be “Indian hot” when everyone else is choosing medium.
For me it really is a taste thing. I genuinely like a bit of bite, but for lots of people who don’t enjoy the burn quite so much I think that it gets to be a sort of competition. Who will break a sweat first or reach for their glass of water?
But is there more to hot food than meets the eye? What is spicy and why do we like it so much?
What makes food spicy?
That wonderful muscle we call a tongue is able to taste five distinct flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Every delicious (and not so delicious) bite that we swallow is made up of a combination if these flavours. So where does hot food fit in?
Well spiciness isn’t technically a taste, it’s a feeling. As well as being covered in taste receptors, your tongue is also covered in lots of tiny tiny pain receptors. There is a chemical found in the seeds of chilli peppers called capsaicin which targets these pain receptors.
When you eat something spicy, the capsaicin molecules bind with the pain receptors on your tongue, creating a burning sensation. This burning sensation is caused by your brain and is identical to what you feel when you put your hand in a hot oven. Do you know what the best part is though? There is no actual damage done! So spicy food gives you all of the burning feels, with none of the painful aftermath.
If it hurts, why do we like it?
Some people believe our love of spicy food comes from the health benefits it has been proven to give us. Chilli foods can lower your blood pressure, increase salivation (which is a good thing, I swear) and be slightly antimicrobial. But scientists argue that these effects are too small to actually be making an evolutionary difference.
Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania believes that we really are in it for the burn. He thinks we get a kick out of the pain. Rozin says it’s a matter of “mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not”.
This certainly isn’t a natural thing in the animal kingdom as the capsaicin in chillis is there to stop animals from wanting to eat them. In fact, in another study scientists found that capsaicin stings us in the same way tarantula venom does. Ouch!
So is there more to this than the thrill of the pain? Scientists seem to think so. In April 2013 a study was published which found that our personality could be affecting whether or not we like it hot!
Really though, there doesn’t seem to be one thing that predicts whether or not we like spicy food, but a bundle of factors combined. How you were brought up, how much spicy food you eat, your physiology and personality all contribute to how much you enjoy that Indian hot curry and your tastes are likely to change throughout your life anyway.
Without further ado though, I would like to share with you one of my favourite capsaicin rich foods – spicy aioli! Garlic, mayonnaise and chilli, could life get any better?
Chicken and Bacon Burgers with Spicy Aioli
For the burger
- Chicken breast
- Chilli flakes
- Burger buns
- Brie cheese, sliced
For the aioli
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp Tabasco
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
To make the aioli, combine all ingredients in a bowl and chill until needed.
Slice the chicken into burger sized pieces and coat in paprika and chilli flakes. Cook the chicken and bacon in a skillet with a little oil.
Place the burger buns on an oven tray, halved with the inside facing up and place the brie on top of the bottom burger bun. Grill until bread is toasted and cheese is melted.
Layer ingredients on the toasted buns and don’t forget the aioli!
Enjoy! The aioli is also great with home made onion rings, yum.