some like it hot

A friend of mine is finishing her PhD at Johns Hopkins in some insanely smart field, like quantum physics mechanical aerospace engineering genetic corn modification. On my last trip to Baltimore, her sister was also in town and we tossed around dinner ideas. Someone suggested Mexican, and I immediately imagined a scene out of Man v. Food.

(un)Fortunately, I had a burrito of normal proportions. I typically prefer my food with a little bit of heat because I believe that spice can bring out a different depth of flavor in a dish. When I first placed my order, I asked the waiter if it would be possible to add jalapenos to my burrito. He assured me it would not be a problem. However, upon bringing out our meal, he arrived with a small bowl of whole jalapenos and offered to slice them for me, table-side.

A few bites of burrito later, I realized these jalapenos were duds and asked the waiter for hot sauce. Our waiter, a gentlemen who only became odder as the night wore on, brought out a bottle and paused to say, “I put a little drop on my tongue, and it burned the whole way down. You know it’s not good to eat too much spicy food. You might burn off your tongue.”

My friend and her sister convinced me that his words were a challenge offered. In turn, I emptied the whole bottle of habenero hot sauce on my plate. Challenge accepted. By the end of the evening, I had allegedly emptied the kitchen of jalapenos, spicy salsa, and hot sauce. Our waiter had also flatteringly associated my tolerance for heat with an episode of something he saw on the SyFy channel.

That event, compiled with my love for hot sauces and gleeful discovery of the world’s new hottest pepper, got me thinking. Why do I love spicy food so much? And why can some people down ghost chili peppers without a tear and other people can’t even let a red pepper flake touch their lips?

There are many theories proposed to explain this love of all things spicy. Some people think it’s a form of masochism. Others think it has something to do with a developed taste bias. And yet others say it is cultural and regional because “spices are Nature’s meds.”

Which reason do you think is the most compelling, and why do you like (or don’t like) spicy food?

Ghost Chile Hot Sauce! If you’re interested, check out the Savory Spice Shop in Princeton, NJ. Even if you don’t like heat, the store has a great selection of herbs and spices and blended rubs and seasonings.





  1. Lynn Evans

    I am super impressed with your tolerance for hot, spicy food! All I could think while reading this posting was W-O-W! I can tolerate moderately spicy food and enjoy it sometimes (to the point where I have eaten homemade Indian food as tears streamed down my face. Boy was it spicy, but man was it good!!!).

    Anyway – your posting also reminded me of a funny incident that happened to me in college. After class one day, I went to visit my friend Savita, who lived in the apartment down the hall. When I arrived she was taking a break from studying and making a bowl of homemade salsa. I was super hungry and as I watched her mix the ingredients together in the bowl I began to salivate profusely. I eagerly asked her what was in the salsa and if I could have some. Savita of course said yes and then politely listed off the ingredients per my request. Now when she said peppers – my American brain registered green bell peppers. Well that was a huge mistake on my part because as soon as I took a chip with a heaping mound of salsa on it and shoved it into my mouth, I realized she meant jalapeno peppers. I just remember my mouth being on fire and drinking gratuitous amounts of milk to alleviate the burning sensation. To this day, I remind Savita of the day she tried to kill me (with a little chuckle).

    Based on the story you relayed above, you would have definitely been up to the challenge of eating Savita’s super spicy salsa and would have loved every single bit of it (sans the fire-roasted tongue) :).

  2. HOW DO YOU DO THAT???!!! My roommate puts hot sauce on EVERYTHING. Like. Everything. As in, she puts it on pizza, burritos, eggs, OATMEAL… Everything.

    I, on the other hand, cannot for the LIFE of me handle even ‘spice’, let alone ‘spicy’. Like, if I SMELL it, my esophagus bursts into flame.

    I personally think it has to don with either culture or upbringing– no one in my family ever ate hot sauce, so maybe I just never grew accustomed to it? I don’t think my brother or sister eat it, either– although I don’t think either has as strong an aversion to it as I’ve developed…

    Either way, it’s a fascinating question and one that has haunted me for months, at least. 😉

  3. It’s not just spicy foods that confound me, but also another staple of Mexican cooking: cilantro! For ages, I’ve said cilantro tastes like bitter window cleaner spray. It wasn’t until a fellow cilantro avoider sent me this article from The New York Times (which also discusses scientific reasons behind personal tastes) that I felt validated: The person who figures out what makes our tastebuds tick should earn a Nobel Prize!

  4. I’m with District RestaurANT… I cannot eat spicy foods… but then again, I was just recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and that’s pretty much the universal rule for Crohn’s patients: Don’t eat spicy food.

    When I was younger, I always hated spicy food, but my Mom loves spicy dishes. She would have to make a separate “chili” for me because I couldn’t take the heat. Now, I can give a “medical” excuse for not eating it 🙂

  5. Kate

    I too am impressed by your ability to tolerate spicy foods. I can’t go near them, but my dad prefers to cry while he eats, meaning the hotter the better. A good friend of my from college also liked to put hot sauce on everything she ate, I always attributed it to her growing up in Texas, but maybe it’s something else?

  6. Allee Sangiolo

    I definitely like spicy food, but I’m not about to eat a ghost pepper any time soon. It seems like hot peppers always inspire a challenge–a similar thing happened at my graduation dinner from college. My aunt, who literally puts jalapenos on everything she eats, told the waiter at Zengo to bring her the hottest hot sauce they had. They brought her a little dish of hot sauce made from ghost peppers. Even she could barely handle it (but did, in fact, eat it). My dad decided it couldnt possibly be that hot and she was being a wimp, and HE ate it….and of course, turned bright red and started sweating profusely. I’m not quite sure why we associate not being able to handle spice with being “wimpy,” but I will say that there’s definitely something satisfying about eating spicy food and being able to handle it while someone else is whining about it.

  7. WOW — That’s totally crazy!!! How did you do this!!! That’s amazing! Great story!

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