What Makes Food Spicy?

Habanero Chile peppers.
Do you like spicy food?

If the answer is yes – join the club! If the answer is no – well, join the other club, because there are lots of people just like you!

Have you ever wondered why certain foods are so spicy? Spicy foods burn our mouths thanks (or no, thanks!) to capsaicin. Capsaicin (pronounced cap-say-son) is a chemical found in the seeds of chile peppers, like jalapeños, that makes the spicy.

(The more you know: the decidedly unspicy pepper, the bell pepper, is actually called the capsicum – like capsaicin! – in some countries, like Australia and India.)

Different chiles have different levels of capsaicin, and a higher amount means more spice! The heat in a chile pepper is measured using the Scoville Scale, which categorizes foods by their spiciness. A pepperoncini (you may eat them pickled on a Greek salad) is low on the scale, since it isn’t so spicy, but a ghost pepper is super high on the scale because it’s one of the spiciest things you can eat!

You may have heard that if your mouth feels like it’s on fire, you should drink milk. This is good advice! Capsaicin is oil-soluble, which means fat (like milk fat) will help to dissolve it and wash it away from your mouth. Of course, it isn’t a cure all, and sometimes if you’ve overdone it on the spicy foods, it’s a waiting game.

Because the seeds of chile pepper hold most of the heat, if you don’t love spicy foods, you should remove the seeds and veins from the inside of the chile before you use it in a recipe. It will still be little spicy, but not nearly as much. We recommend wearing rubber gloves when you work with hot chiles, because once you get that capsaicin on your hands, you run the risk of rubbing it in your eyes or your nose – or even just having a hot, burning hand! Capsaicin doesn’t just burn your mouth.

When we think of spicy food, we think of Mexican cuisine, spicy Indian curries, and super hot Thai chile peppers. But in parts of China, specifically the Szechuan region, food is ultra-spicy, but in a different way.

Sure, cooks in the Szechuan region use hot Chile peppers (LOTS of them, in fact!), but they also use a particular peppercorn, known as the Szechuan peppercorn, which is famous for being mouth-numbing. Eating Szechuan dishes, like Dan Dan Noodles or Mapo Tofu, you’ll start off feeling the heat, and then your mouth will start to feel a little tingly!

So now that you know about spicy foods, are you ready to experiment? Try making a spicy Piri Piri sauce, easy cucumber salad with a kick, or a just-spicy-enough Thai Green Curry. Just remember, you can always add more spice, but you can’t take it away, so go slowly!

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