What Makes Spicy Food so… Spicy?

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Margaret Ross, Staff Writer

Everything from sriracha to jalapenos to curry produces the same sensation on your sensitive taste buds: fiery, hot and spicy! Personally, I find spicy to be an ingredient in some of the tastiest dishes ever. Spice also fascinates me because everyone has a different tolerance level.

That pleasant, but sometimes overwhelming, feeling can be exceptionally delicious, or unbearably painful. Whether or not you’re a fan of the spicy side of the food spectrum like I am, a thorough education on capsaicin is beneficial for the enjoyment of any fiery dish.

Spices play a major part in both cultural and culinary history. Although they are no longer worth their weight in gold, nor used to adorn Egyptian tombs, spices play an important role in the food we love.

Capsaicin (cap-say-a-sin), an organic compound derived from the seed of the campicum plant, is the active component in spicy food.

Capsaicin attaches onto pain receptors on the tongue called VR1 receptors, sending pain signals to the brain. Unlike the burn of a flame on skin, capsaicin does no physical damage. In fact, the pain caused by the receptors causes a release of endorphins, the body’s painkillers, which evoke a feeling of happiness.

Aside from the endorphin jolt, some amount of spicy food is also thought to speed up the metabolism, decrease risk of heart disease, and even help prevent certain forms of cancer. However, too much spice can be painful.

Although it would seem logical to ease the burn with ice cold water, that is actually your least helpful option. Because of capsaicin’s oily properties, it doesn’t mix with water and will only spread the spice inferno more.

On the contrary, milk and other fatty foods are effective in soothing the burn for the same reason that water is not. Capsaicin easily dissolves in fat, and, once dissolved, cannot bind to the VR1 receptors. Similarly, sugar can help by coating the tongue and preventing capsaicin from attaching.

Beyond the food, capsaicin is present in plenty of skin remedies, especially for easing aches and pains. Capsaicin has also developed into aromatherapy, insect repellent, and medicine. From chilis to cinnamon, each spice has a different function.

Looking to test out your new knowledge? Look no further than the bay area’s own plethora of spicy dishes. In Oakland, try Ajanta on Solano Avenue, a classy but authentic Indian restaurant, with dishes ranging from mildly to “all the way” spicy. Feeling fishy? Try the special “Orinda Roll” at Orinda’s new Sushi Island.

If you share my love for spice, you understand why I think that every dish should have a peppery flavor. From wasabi to sriracha, I always crave a little more kick.