Why some like it hot: awesomeness

By Razib Khan | November 30, 2011 7:33 pm

Mr. Jason Goldman has a post up, On Capsaicin: Why Do We Love to Eat Hot Peppers?. We don’t need no stinkin’ science for this. Do some ethnography with an N = 1: me. Those of us who love spicy food are just awesome! Recently I went to a Thai restaurant for the first time in 4 years which I used to frequent weekly in 2006-2007. Every Saturday I’d go and get a beef salad, which the chef would specially prepare for me by rubbing in a habanero paste into the meat ahead of time. That was the “four star” spicy level. When I reappeared after all this time the host exclaimed, “It’s Mr. four star!” Despite the years much of the staff which had been around back then remembered me. Back in the day sometimes they’d even watch me eat the dish to observe if I’d live to tell the tale. I can tell you similar stories from other restaurants. My very high spice tolerance threshold has reached such a level of virtuosity that people are often taken aback, and strangers will often comment upon it.

My point is that consumption of spicy food isn’t just a experience of the palette, it is deeply social. It is a signal of awesomeness, like having big antlers.

Here are some of Jason’s ideas:

Perhaps we seek out the painful experience of snacking on chillies while consciously maintaining awareness that there is no real danger to ourselves. After all, people seem to enjoy – and actively seek out – many other sensations that are otherwise undesirable but are ostensibly safe: the sensation of falling provided by rollercoasters or skydiving, the feelings of fear and anxiety while watching horror movies, the physical pain experienced upon jumping into icy water, or even the feelings of sadness that come while watching a tear-jerker. Perhaps it is this cognitive mismatch itself that provides the thrill: like strapping into a rollercoaster or popping Hostel into your DVD player over and over again, the burn of capsaicin only seems to be threatening.

Image credit: Andrew Bushby

  • Polynices

    This post is why I love this blog. Come for the intelligent genetics blogging, stay for the fun spicy food posts.

  • oldtaku

    I’m a hothead, can (and do) just eat habaneros, use the scorpions and ghost chili for real heat. Basically if I know there’s no real damage the heat is really quite pleasurable. It doesn’t hurt. And the sweating, flushing and temperature elevation are refreshing, a bit like a sauna – up to a point.

    Light sweat, face turning slightly red is perfect. But too much and I can no longer taste the food, the sweating is unpleasant, and it hurts even though I know it’s not actually damaging. Riding that line provides a thrill all by itself.

    And yes, it’s also kind of a UNF UNF manly thing. You can also make some good money on bar bets (and impress the whole room) by chowing down on a habanero. However, fair warning: make sure you wash really, really well before turning your watering hole capsacin strutting into sexual conquest.

  • Cat

    When I bit into one of these innocent looking peppers, I was expecting one of the sweet variety, had never heard of habaneros. After the fateful bite, I remember rushing to the fridge, grabbed a carton of milk and chugged it down like my life depended on it :)

  • http://bluetenlese.wordpress.com M. Möhling

    Back in the 70ies in Mexico City, aged 14, I mistook a bowl of a funny looking green sauce (restaurant customers were supposed to add a spoonful or two to their dishes) with a soup–I expected it to be a free amuse-gueule of sorts. Though extremely painful (then) I didn’t learn my lesson on Mexican ways. Back on the Iberia plane I chomped on a Habanero pepper served shrink-wrapped (wtf?! and what was I thinking?) when the seat belts were to be kept fastened for about 15 min. In hell. Things were never the same from then on and over the years I grew to like it–there’s always a big jar of Sambal Oelek in the fridge.* I wonder whether my taste buds popped off. The downside: having a mild form of chronic rhinitis my nose starts to run long distance when eating hot, but that doesn’t stop me.

    > a carton of milk
    as a not-yet overly globalised Westerner back then I didn’t know of the hotness/dairy products dialectics, so coke didn’t help much…

    * thanks to my Turkish halal Süper Market around the corner in my thoroughly globalised hood, where men are men, womenfolk clad in Tesettür, and no alcohol is sold. What the hell. Their Kemalist brethren sell that on the other side of the street. More power to them (though not too much of that either). They need it, as the Süper Market is huge while the booze shop is tiny.

  • James Harmer

    Habaneros are for wimps! Try Dorset Nagas, they have a stupidly high Scovile heat rating. Nagas are a variety of Bhut Jolokia from north eastern India, but rather weirdly they grow in southern England, and on my windowsill.
    Look them up on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorset_Naga_pepper

  • marcel

    “big antlers”? Now, there’s a euphemism for you.

  • Sandgroper

    I don’t really buy Jason’s explanation. It’s not like sky diving or bungee jumping. Most people take of it what they know they can handle and in an amount they think will enhance rather than overpower food, either cooked into dishes or as a condiment.

    Chilli clearly enhances the flavours of a lot of foods, hence its widespread adoption into a lot of regional cuisines post-1492.

    It also appears to have some addictive property, or certainly desensitising – I need to keep increasing the dose to get the same buzz. But I started at a very low point.

  • Dane

    In his new book, Pinker briefly discusses Paul Rozin’s idea of ‘benign masochism’ as part of a discussion on acquired tastes (which, he argues, includes sadism). Eating hot chili peppers is specifically mentioned.

  • BJM

    Men can turn anything into a test of “manliness”, eating hot peppers being no exception. On the other hand, my experiences in Cote d’Ivoire , tell me that most people who “eat peppers” simply use them to spice up their food. I myself like food spiced with peppers because it pleasantly warms the mouth. Too much for an individual’s taste however ruins the meal. Using peppers as a test of endurance or to satisfy a masochistic urge falls far behind making the eating experience pleasurable as a reason peppers are used in cooking around the world.

  • Walkeresque

    Capsaicin likely boosts the immune system which would be helpful to people who live in tropical regions, such as South Asia, due to all the potentially lethal tropical diseases that can be found in such areas. In colder regions, such as Northern Europe, such diseases tend to be rarer and it is likely that capsaicin increases the risk of someone developing an autoimmune disorder which would mean that a fondness for hot spicy foods would be less favored by natural selection.

  • Matt

    Yeah. I also think there’s an inverse element, maybe especially amongst women (?) but also gourmets and people from no chili regions of signalling refinement of palette through not being able to take the chili, when really they can. And not to seem like macho competitive guy (at least in that sphere) where it’s frowned upon as ridiculous.

    So everyone’s working to adjust their social and psychological levels of chili consumption differently from what it could be (even though people really do vary in their taste on a genetic and acquired level).

  • TonyGrimes

    I wonder if there is an element of masochism in extreme chilli eating. Where I live in the east end of London, the successful businessmen from the City are the ones who order exxtra-spicy food in the curry houses. Almost as a form of display. It’s known that the sexual tastes of the successful often involve humiliation, .. so the same people who masochistically eat ultra-spicy food may be the same sort of people who pay prostitutes to shit on them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    so the same people who masochistically eat ultra-spicy food may be the same sort of people who pay prostitutes to shit on them.

    dude, that’s disgusting.

    but also gourmets and people from no chili regions of signalling refinement of palette through not being able to take the chili, when really they can.

    right, this is the change that happened in europe, especially france and england, in the 17th century. the fashion for spice flipped, so that really good cuisine was signaled by its lack of dependence on such seasonings.

  • miko

    Do you know your genotype at TRPV1? You may just be a wimp with a weaker signaling isoform of the capsaicin receptor. When you eat a habanero it could be what I feel with a baby food, like Sriracha.

  • Jacob Roberson

    I used to be a regular at an oriental-ish place I think Chinese-owned? Usually had the same dinner, with the same American-style mild sauce, same alcohol, same restored good health when I left, etc. Besides Chinese-ish food doesn’t have to be fiery to be good.

    One night I take my first bite and SWEET JUMPING JESUS. I didn’t order it like this WTF? Silently. I try not to complain. Not going to be a little boy about this… just eat slowly Jacob, slowly. Funny sonofabitch.

    Waiter comes over, I think several times, to ask if I’m ok. Probably look like a lobster by then. Before I even finish he brings me a free, huge bowl of ice cream. Helps me cover my unmanly shame by pretending it’s just because I’m a regular customer. Hilarious.

    (Even odder epilogue: At the time I thought, he’s playing with me because I’m a regular. Later I find out he’s a (you guessed it) Thai, a friend of my father’s from when he lived over there. My father, who loves hot food and whiskey – clearly for me it’s not genetics. Funny thing is my father didn’t live near that restaurant, I hadn’t seen him for several years, I don’t know my father that well. Was the waiter funny with me because of whose son I was? How would he know? Never have figured that one out.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #14, do you have a SNP in mind?

  • pconroy

    I’ve found over the years that coders/hackers especially love to challenge each other to eating hotter spices, and/or drinking more shots or whatever lethal combination is currently the rage – there is some sort of extra competitive streak that needs to be expressed!

    I remember after finishing a coding project, I was one of 8 coders going out for refreshments, and after an extra hot Vindaloo curry, we did a few beers, then a few shots of “Pit Bull on Crack” – equal parts Goldschläger, Rumplemintz and Jägermeister – then challenged each other to put a hand on top of a glass candle holder, and to hold your hand there till the candle extinguished. I actually was the winner after I extinguished 6 candles…

    So I ended up burning on the inside and outside!

  • Jacob Roberson

    pconroy: Drew Curtis used to say he codes better while drunk. Then he got rich, the drinking continued but the coding stopped. The world may never know.

  • Sandgroper

    “Cafe Zen has broken away from typically ordinary chinese food”? Typically ordinary in Baltimore, maybe. There is no such thing as “Chinese food”, let alone “ordinary Chinese food”. “Chinese-ish” might be a pretty fair descriptor.

    So it looks like there are two different things going on – one is where chilli is used in controlled type/quantity as a spice, and the other is some kind of competitive thing. The latter might qualify as benign masochism, although I’m not sure how benign it is. I don’t see why the former would.

  • http://www.chilicult.com Gerald

    I’m not unhappy the slight masochism … uhm, novelty- and adrenaline-seeking… related to chile pepper consumption is finally getting more widespread attention than the hygiene hypothesis according to which chiles protect against foodborne (meat-related) diseases.

    The typical problem, after all, seems to be that people keep looking for *the* single explanation when it is quite obviously a combination of them – and as the ChiliCult-ist, I know ’em all…

    Manly games? Watch my wife (who’s from Hunan) cook and eat. With her, it’s just normal to want chile pepper-spicy food (and Sichuanese-style for variety). Admittedly, she wouldn’t get into competitions, but that’s mainly because eating raw peppers as is so often done in them just wouldn’t be her thing.
    Novelty? Well, in many areas where chile peppers got adopted quickly, there was some kind of pre-adaptation. Other spicy ingredients had already been in use.
    Protection from disease? Well, sure, and there’s lots of vitamins (not least, Vit. A which is lacking in rice-based diets) in peppers. But, the hypothesis there was that it’s peppers + meat. Those may have been more of the recipes, but everyday cooking in “hot” areas uses lots of chiles also with vegetables…
    Sweating to cool off? Well, maybe – but in China at least, they also eat hot to warm up in the cold winters.

    So, basically: it’s everything and nothing, all at once. Just enjoy, however you take it.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    More prosaically, we developed a taste for spicy foods because it is a natural food preservative (and is strongest in peoples where this feature is most needed), and that taste isn’t very finely calibrated for intensity so a “the more the better” instinct, similar to the one for sugar, prevailed.

    Along similar lines, a study this fall suggested that genes that pre-dispose people to be more vulnerable to cocaine addition are associated with the part of the genome that codes cravings for and regulation of salt intake, another pre-historically scarce resource in many populations where “the more the better” was a good instinct.

    A couple other bits of trivia:

    1. Aztecs used the sting of chili pepper smoke (akin to pepper spray) as a form of corporal punishment.

    2. The same ecological factors that are associated with a taste for spicy foods are also associated with a historically more balkanized religious culture with each little sect in more tropical areas typically having its own set of distinct taboos. This cultural tendency towards polyculture rather than monoculture in these areas may have had the function benefit of preventing AMHs from being wiped out by any one highly lethal pathogen in a pre-epidemiology/germ theory of diseas world, since somebody group’s taboos probably counteract it even if another’s didn’t. This provided a mechanism for group level culturally selective processes that would favor both desired and taboo cultural practices that were most effectively pathogen resistant. In contrast, in places with lower pathogen loads, where the selective pressures for polyculture are not so great, there was far less diversity in religion and in taboos; in these places the benefits of having a large cultural unified population outweighed the risks associated with a monoculture.

    This “just so story” supported by corrolation, but not causation, is a fit to the evidence that pathogen resistance is one of the most strongly selected for components of all forms of recent AMH evolution, byhistorical anecdotes like the influence of community trust v. distrust on survival in the Plague era of medieval Europe, and by the example of the mass death caused in the wake of exposure to Columbian diseases in the New World (and the little reverse echo of syphilis that the crew of Columbus brought back to the Old World) of the immense demographic impact that a new pathogen can have which would make this potential selective driver of things like religious culture plausible.

  • chris w

    “It is a signal of awesomeness, like having big antlers.”

    Haha, oh wow, you asked for it: http://i.imgur.com/0atCy.jpg

  • Mercy

    The Blandest Thing on The Menu sketch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdo79znnHl8) seems relevant to the competition talk. Given the way one develops a tolerance for capsicum it works pretty nicely as an in-group bonding thing, newcomers needing to have so many meals with the group to properly fit in.

  • peter

    We like to experience sensation, I chop chillis(+olive oil and sometimes other “interesting” additives) and flavour most food (My family are less keen on the chillis – that’s why i prepare it separate)
    I have replaced salt i my diet with my chilli mixture

  • Sandgroper

    There is another reason for eating it – colon cancer is almost unkown in Thailand and Mexico.

  • Jo

    Nerd machismo. A privately experienced, and ultimately safe form of “risky” behavior. Big antlers without the actual banging into other animals (and all in your head).


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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