Here’s the thing. I’m not a complete chilli head, I don’t ram superhot chillies down my throat and peer longingly at the top of the Scoville scale. But I love spicy food. I know this isn’t exactly unusual, there’s a reason chillies are a huge market. Many people love spicy food. But why?
Seriously, it shouldn’t make sense. Part of what makes food ‘hot’ is capsaicin, a chemical which excites pain receptors of all things. Maybe we’re a bit nuts. Maybe the spice haters are the sensible ones.
Or maybe not. I never used to like my food too spicy. I didn’t get it. I didn’t mind a hint of spice, but I didn’t understand the appeal of food that burned; after all, it made me sweat, it made my nose run. Who would put themselves through that? My family, apparently. We currently live in a semi rural area where most people don’t seem to have a tolerance for hot food, but originally we came from a city with much more eclectic tastes. So often the food we ate ranged from Caribbean meals to Indian style curries. I managed this quite heroically, with a healthy helping of yoghurt to ease me through it. So what happened? I did build somewhat more of a tolerance as I got older, but that wasn’t what converted me.
When I was 16 or so, I lost my sense of taste. It’s okay, it was temporary. It was likely an issue with my salivary glands which sorted itself out. But for a year or so, everything tasted of nothing. Well, almost everything. Remember what I said about capsaicin? My pain receptors worked just fine. Suddenly, the only way I could ‘taste’ anything was if it was hot. The hotter the better. True, most other people couldn’t eat what I was cooking, but I was transformed. It wasn’t just the sensation of the heat I enjoyed, but the rush it gave me. Eating at this time was generally difficult and unpleasant, but this gave me something to enjoy.
Slowly, my sense of taste returned. But my newfound tolerance stayed, so I discovered something else about chillies and spicy food in general. They are delicious. You see, when you eat a chilli and are overwhelmed with the heat, that’s all you experience. No flavour, no nuance, just burning pain. But when you have a tolerance to this heat and you even enjoy it, you notice other things. Sweetness, fruitiness, richness or freshness. Now I do like my spicy food, but my favourite chillies aren’t always hot. Ancho chillies add a wonderful warmth and depth of flavour, Aleppo chillies are just delightful with melted cheese. I even like some chillies that don’t begin with ‘A’.
So I’ve rambled on a lot about how much I enjoy cooking with and eating chillies. But there are other benefits to eating them, which for me is a nice added extra. Capsaicin (hello again) has been known to have anti-inflammatory properties and some people in purport anti-carcinogenic qualities. Also, like many fruits, chillies can be full of varying nutrients and antioxidants which can’t hurt. Chillies can also be fermented which produces lactobacillus bacteria, otherwise known as ‘good gut bacteria’. Sure, chugging fermented hot sauce might be trickier than yoghurt, but I’d argue it’s more delicious. Maybe that’s just me.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should eat spicy food. Some people just don’t like it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t like fried eggs, even drowned in sriracha. Some people can’t physically handle it, I wouldn’t wish the messier side effects on anyone. Although I’d like to say that this is no reason to restrict yourself from enjoying an entire culture’s cuisine; just choose the less spicy option. But my point here is, people are different and that’s okay. Just give it a try, you might fall in love.