Sniffles and perspiration might be seen as signs of discomfort. But ask a lover of spicy food and a meal that does not result in a sweat-soaked brow is not a tasty one.
For others, like me, extreme spiciness overpowers the flavour of the ingredients. A spicy Thai green curry is great but eat a milder version and you will appreciate the gentle sweetness of the vegetables and the umami flavour of the meat.
But clearly, there is a divide. There are those who add an extra sprinkle of red chili flakes to their soups and there are those who pick off the jalapenos from a slice of pizza.
I had to keep my bias against spicy food aside to get to the bottom of this. Firstly, what is it that appeals to people who enjoy it?
Spicy food is made to give you joy…
Whether it’s a bite of spicy mutton kababs from a street stall in India or a slurp of fiery beef noodle soup in Taiwan, it’s the same chemical compound which is responsible for the tingling sensation in your mouth – capsaicin.
Capsaicin binds to pain receptors on our nerves. But what is it about that painful feeling that people like so much? The credit goes to the endorphins and dopamine your brain releases as a result of the pain, which people look for, as reported by businessinsider.com.
It is not just the joyous chemical reaction one gets from a spicy bowl of soup or curry, in some ways, zesty food also helps the human body.
Faster metabolism, studies suggest…
If you want to increase your metabolism, go for the spicy option on the menu, a study by the Obesity: Open Access, an online health journal, suggests.
During the study, they gave a group of people a capsule of capsaicinoids (the compound that gives chili peppers their heat) or a placebo daily. They measured the metabolic rate of the volunteers each hour for three hours after taking the pill. The findings showed that the people who had the capsaicinoids, burnt 116 calories more than those who had the placebo.
According to the study, capsaicinoids create more heat in the body when they are digested, so the body burns more calories when spicy food is eaten.
Tolerance can be built…
I’ve gotten “grow up” thrown at me a few times by friends and family as I gulped down one glass after another of water, while having spicy food. But the question is, can one really “grow up” to tolerate spicier dishes or does one’s tolerance not increase over time?
According to keanhealth.com, if you eat spicy food regularly, your pain receptors are exposed to capsacin and there is a change in nerve endings, eventually desensitising them. This helps people eat spicy food with less of a painful experience.
According to the report, over time, your entire nerve endings can degrade, which is a phenomenon that science still does not fully understand yet. However, these nerves can grow back, so having that extra serving of spicy chicken curry might help retain your tolerance.
For the love of everything spicy…
Pakistani expat Murtaza Fakhruddin looks for restaurants, which can emulate the spiciness of the dishes he used to have with his family and on the streets of Karachi, his hometown.
Speaking about one of his favourite zesty street food dishes, the 37-year-old said: “You just can’t have Pani Puri (crispy fried dough filled with spicy chutneys and fillings) without asking the stall owner for a dash of extra spicy water. A spicy food lover’s experience will not be complete otherwise.”
“You just can’t have Pani Puri (crispy fried dough filled with spicy chutneys and fillings) without asking the stall owner for a dash of extra spicy water.
Fakhruddin has a certain criteria when it comes to spicy food. “If they’re [a restaurant is] claiming that a dish is spicy, it needs to make my forehead sweat and get my mouth to tingle, otherwise it’s not spicy enough,” he said.
The sales professional, who calls himself a “foodie”, is always on the hunt for new dishes. “It’s not just desi food [food from the Indian subcontinent] that I try. I enjoy steaks and pastas too but I’ll always check if they have any kind of spicy sauce on the side to go with it. For me, it enhances the flavour,” he said.
Unlike Fakhruddin, who grew up eating fiery dishes, Iraqi expat Raya Khalid started trying spicy food through her friends.
“We don’t really eat spicy food at home. I don’t remember my mother ever cooking spicy food. But when I was in school, where I met people from all backgrounds, I tried out different dishes,” she said.
Khalid tried red-chili flavoured potato chips, spicy biryani and curries thanks to her friends.
Now, the Dubai-based expat orders food from Indian, Pakistani and Thai restaurants and asks for the “highest level of spice”.
“I enjoy eating a very spicy Nihari or biryani but there are foods that don’t require it [chili],”
However, Khalid is of the mindset that certain dishes are best with added chili, while there are recipes that are flavourful without the spiciness.
“I enjoy eating a very spicy Nihari or biryani but there are foods that don’t require it [chili],” she said.
Big on flavour, not spice…
However, there are those who want nothing to do with the joy of eating something spicy, they choose to stay away from it.
British-Pakistani expat, Emaan Siddiqui, is a self-proclaimed “foodie” and home cook. While she enjoys trying out new dishes at restaurants and tries recipes at home, she stays away from adding red or green chillies to her food.
When the food is milder, I even eat better. I don’t have to sip water every five minutes, which fills my stomach
“I enjoy milder food, the feeling that spicy food causes is not pleasant. When the food is milder, I even eat better. I don’t have to sip water every five minutes, which fills my stomach,” said the 26-year-old.
Many of the dishes Siddiqui likes are big on flavour but minimal on spice. “Take Iranian food for example, I love Kabab Koobideh (made from minced lamb or beef), and mandi (a rice and meat based dish). These dishes are so flavoursome but they’re not spicy,” she added.
Dubai-based Indian expat, Nayab Husain, who is also a home cook, has a similar opinion when it comes to food.
The 52-year-old said: “In my opinion to relish food it should be milder in taste, as it enhances the flavours of the ingredients and herbs added to it, and also gives each dish a unique taste and flavour.”
In my opinion to relish food it should be milder in taste, as it enhances the flavours of the ingredients and herbs added to it, and also gives each dish a unique taste and flavour.
Sharing her experience with cooking Indian cuisine, she said: “If the food is too spicy than the taste is lost, also it makes it difficult to balance the other layers of flavour.
“If I talk about Indian cuisine for example you can make Qorma, Pulao, Kababs, various type of lentil-based dishes (dal), as well as other vegetarian dishes can be enjoyed even more if they are milder. As you can taste each, individual ingredient.”
While the sentiments are strong on both sides of the spectrum of all-things-spicy, the love of food is evident in both groups. Whether it is a spicy concoction that makes you salivate or you are one to play it safe in the realm of zesty food, visit gulfnews.com/food and you will find a recipe as per your liking.
Do you have a food story you would like us to feature? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org