Until relatively recently in life, I saw eating spicy food as a cruel and unusual masochistic punishment. Intense spice destroyed taste, burned like hell and caused the same bodily reactions as those invoked by panic and fear. Chilli simply made meals a traumatic experience. Two traumatic experiences, in fact. It baffled me why some people willingly surrendered themselves to this torture – but then again, I never exactly understood why some people like stapling chunks of metal into their faces or watching Beauty and the Geek. But people do. Chilli-eating isn’t genetic, it has to start somewhere, right? Well, here’s the thing: I am literally typing this less than half an hour after eating lunch – a big $6.50 lunch-special chilli pad khi mao. The Thai food equivalent of eating a flamethrower that has been set on fire by another flamethrower. So, how did I come to be the taste-bud murdering masochist I once thought I’d never to be?
The answer, according to new research, is that it could be because I’m a thrill-seeker. A recent study by Nadia Byrnes (an apt name if there ever was one) and John Hayes from Pennsylvania State University, suggests that people with a fondness for thrill-seeking or adventure are more likely to develop a habit of eating spicy foods, despite the discomfort or pain – or possibly even because of it.
While are other factors such as cultural upbringing and previous experience, the UPenn study reveals a clear connection between sensation-seeking personality types and the love of a spicy spanking to the oral receptors. The most intriguing part of the study is that those who eat chilli often feel just as much pain as those who don’t. “This suggests chilli liking is not merely a case of increased tolerance with repeated exposure, but rather that there is an affective shift towards a preference for oral burn that is not found in chilli dislikers,” write Byrnes and Hayes. “That is, chilli-heads like the burn more, not just perceive it less.”
Personally, this is somewhat validating news, though for a reason not necessarily mentioned. See, I know my turnabout from chilli-spurner to chilli-yearner wasn’t because I actually enjoyed the burn – at least not at first – but it was indeed from satisfying an addictive thrill. This study oddly enough tells me that perhaps ‘thrill-seeking’ is more than being stoked about gnarly tubular epicness, dude, but can be to find personal exhilaration in small and symbolic deeds. My brave entry into the world of chilli (or mundo del fuego, as I prefer to call it) was actually a by-product of my desperate attempts to impress someone. It was my dedication to earn some form of respect of someone else that saw me through the agony, politely nodding while the nerves in my mouth died horrible deaths, screaming out ‘Judas’ as they burned from existence. It wasn’t personal curiosity, it wasn’t a culinary revolution – it had nothing to do with food at all. And it worked, to a point, which kept me coming back for more. What I came to love was not actually spice, but the spice of life (yes, surely you knew that was coming). Seriously though, as was also pointed out by Byrnes and Hayes, I never physically felt the hot sensation less, but instead grew to love it more. Not from increased tolerance or toughened-up nerves, but instead that emboldening feeling of tenacity and self-sacrifice, even gallantry. This all might sound a more than a little overwrought for the simple of act of ordering a beef vindaloo over butter chicken, but symbolically it’s no less important as any other of those little things in life to which we attach deeper meaning. Sometimes the spice of life (as in, the proverbial phrase coined by William Cowper) really is the little things, such as the spice of life (as in, capsaicin, the plant chemical that makes chilli hot).
Anyway, that was a couple of years ago and now, with nobody to impress, I still kick my food up the Scoville scale at every opportunity. No food I prepare is truly a meal until I have rained enough chilli flakes upon it to expect a small phoenix to rise from every finished plate. At one point after watching too much Heston Blumenthal, I even tried to make my own chilli chocolate, and then tried to make chilli-chocolate pancakes. Let’s just say Heston’s mantle of number one crazy-awesome chef was never challenged, but nor was my love of chilli. Now, eating spicy food is simply for the excitement of eating spicy food. The mist of sweat on the cheeks, the rise in the heart-rate, the shortness of breath – it’s now simply the chilli doing that to me, whereas once I could have mistaken it for something else. Chilli always hurts. It hurts like a bastard. But it’s no longer a form of torture; it’s a small, powerful reminder that the most powerful thrills can be small. Call me a silly, sentimental, thrill-seeking chilli-lover – and damned proud to be so.
BONUS: Chef Chris’s Top Six Spicy Dishes:
Chilli Pad Khi Mao
Easily an all-time favourite of mine. Flat noodles covered in delectable garlic soy sauce strewn with chunks of fresh chopped chilli and holy basil. The dish is also known as ‘drunken noodles’, because its tongue-immolating spiciness often leaves the eater pouring down drinks to douse the flames. Awesome.
Dandan Sichuan Noodles
Best with pork, this Chinese dish has perhaps the best spicy sauce known to man. It’s eye-watering spicy, mouth-wateringly tasty, and often served in massive portions. Like anything cooked Sichuan-style, it contains near-criminal levels of chilli. Eat it and die happy.
There are many variations of goulash, but the traditional Mark-1 Hungarian Goulash is super-generous with the paprika. It’s a thick, stodgy stew with potatoes, meat, potatoes, noodles and potatoes. Without flour for thickening, chefs resort to spicy paprika. Lots of it. It’s the perfect dish for cold weather and cold wars.
Of course, no list of spicy dishes can go without an entry from Mexico. You could pick any meal really and it’d count, but a big plate of nachos is hard to beat, especially when coated with a big helping of chipotle sauce – and not the impotent supermarket kind the gringos like, but the jalapeno-enhanced, high octane stuff that makes hugging a cactus positively cosy in comparison.
Spaghetti Bolognese with Chilli Flakes
This is poor man’s spaghetti arrabbiata. Or the man’s man spaghetti arabbiatta… it depends. Either way, spaghetti bolognese is all-but a staple these days. It’s simple and easy to make, and a Sunday afternoon’s vat of sauce will feed you and guests for a week. But, while arribbiata sauce is the official Italian spicy sauce, it lacks the meat and charm of Bolognese. So, the solution? Chilli flakes. A goddamn red blizzard of chilli flakes. Only stop adding the flakes when you see the ends of the noodles catching alight. Then enjoy.
I always figured ‘jerk chicken’ was the menu trying to justify my choice to eat meat by revealing the chicken to have been a mean prick, but it’s much more than that. It’s a palate-pleasing exotic concoction of allspice, cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme and garlic; with a few palate-pulverising scotch bonnet peppers thrown in to melt your face right off your skull. There’s a reason Jamaican sprinters dominate the Olympics, and I’m certain jerk chicken is behind it.