I don’t like spicy food. Even the really ‘mild’ stuff just tastes of hot – I don’t get any flavour from it, and I find eating it pretty unpleasant. I used to wonder if I was doing something wrong, or just not putting the effort in. But in the past few years I’ve realised I just don’t experience what everyone else seems to. It’d be interesting to know what’s going on here, and this article on a competition to eat the world’s hottest peppers is a good start. It explains that the hotness of a chilli is down to the amount of capsaicin it contains, and that people vary in how much they can take:
What accounts for the seemingly vast range in people’s tolerance for capsaicin? Some of it, of course, is genetics. Just as the number and density of taste receptors varies from tongue to tongue, so does the pain receptor count. (But not in a correlative way; so-called supertasters are not necessarily more sensitive to capsaicin.) According to Bryant, tolerance is more built than born. Just as bagpipes and muskets may damage auditory nerves, capsaicin gradually destroys the pain receptors that respond to it. Bryant gives the example of Mexican children introduced to capsaicin as young as 4 or 5, in the form of chili candies. By the time they’re adults, their receptor load has been devastated. “What would scorch your palate off is a pleasant burn to them.”
Burns regularly eats hot Thai, Indian and Mexican food. That she had sought out a Fireball Chili to try while visiting the nearby state of Sikkim suggests “chilihead” proclivities. Which raises the question: Are there people for whom searing oral pain is a positive experience, or are chiliheads simply people who’ve destroyed so many pain receptors that a superhot, to them, is like a jalapeño to you and me? There is also, Bryant points out, huge variability to what one defines as pain. “And then there’s the macho aspect,” he says, such as denying the pain to impress your dinner companions: “I don’t know how many people eat hot peppers in isolation.”
Food science has a theory called “dynamic contrast.” It holds that the human tongue likes variety and surprise. It likes a little salt with its sweet, a little crunchy with its creamy. Though technically an irritant, chili adds spice, literally and otherwise. Psychologists have other ideas on the topic. Some have explained the chili pepper’s popularity by way of the “risk-taking personality”: superhots as the edible version of sky diving.
The hottest pepper in the world is the Naga King Chili, and there are competitions where people eat as much as possible. The after-effects are quite the thing.