Why don’t more people like spicy food?

by on August 24, 2009 at 6:20 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Andrew, a loyal MR reader, has a request:

Tyler, why don't more people like spicy food? What prevents them from trying spicy dishes?

Mexicans acculturate their small children to spicy food gradually, by mixing increasing amounts of chilies into the meal.  It takes a while before the kids enjoy it and at first they don't like it.  If this has never been done to you, you need to make the leap yourself, usually later in life.  The whole point of spicy food is that at first it is painful, causing the release of endorphins to the brain.  With time the pain goes away and you still get the endorphins, although you may seek out an increasingly strong dose to boost the endorphin response.

Not all Americans think this is a good deal.  Older people are less likely to make this initial investment and endure the initial pain.  The same is true for uneducated people (adjusting for ethnicity), who both are less likely to know it will end up being a source of pleasure and who on average have higher discount rates.  What other predictions can be made?  If you and your country are too obsessed with dairy you will be led away from spicy food, one way or the other.  Milk usually counteracts the pleasing effects of chilies.

1 jon August 24, 2009 at 6:33 am

I don’t think ‘acculturate’ means what you think it means.

2 Sachin August 24, 2009 at 6:42 am

Tyler, how do you account for South Asian cuisine that mix both chillies and dairy products?

3 babar August 24, 2009 at 7:39 am

> If you and your country are too obsessed with dairy you will be led away from spicy food, one way or the other.

ever had spicy indian food with raita? guess not.

4 Richard Green August 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

Gotta chime in on the Indian counterfactual to the dairy hypothesis. It’s not exactly a minor example!

5 Tom August 24, 2009 at 8:28 am

“The whole point of spicy food is that at first it is painful, causing the release of endorphins to the brain. ”

I just stick my fork into my arm, much quicker and with the same effect.

6 Alejandro Guerrero August 24, 2009 at 8:45 am

The only counter-argument I can find to Tyler’s is that other tastes are eliminated by the taste of chili and other spices. For this reason, many people from Chili-based cuisines tend to consider Mediterranean cuisine as sort of flavor-less: they have lost their ability to enjoy (eg) the mild, subtle taste of broccoli or the diversity of tastes in different olive oils.

7 Anonymous August 24, 2009 at 8:56 am

I just stick my fork into my arm, much quicker and with the same effect.

Let me know when the pain goes away and you just get the endorphins.

Anyway, that “hot” spice (like that in peppers) is actually a poison.

That may be true, but it’s an awfully mild poison. I’d usually call capsaicin an irritant rather than a poison: it doesn’t cause any problems beyond some irritation and perhaps inflammation, it doesn’t build up or need to be detoxified by the liver, etc.

For comparison, poison ivy is tremendously more irritating and problematic than capsaicin, but it would be unconventional to say you were poisoned by touching poison ivy (even despite the name “poison ivy”).

8 Kevin Kramer August 24, 2009 at 9:04 am

I read somewhere that people’s taste bud concentration can vary by five orders of magnitude and is one order of magnitude different on average between men and women (women are more sensitive). I think it probably has something to do with this.

9 Eli August 24, 2009 at 9:34 am

I had always presumed the original purpose of spices was to kill bacteria in the food.

Is that just a total fabrication on my part?

10 Discounted? August 24, 2009 at 9:48 am

How do we know uneducated people have higher discount rates?

11 Candadai Tirumalai August 24, 2009 at 10:06 am

If you are in a South Asian restaurant in
London (their number must run in the hundreds)
the menu will designate curry in three
or so progressively hotter kinds. If you want
to set the roof of your mouth on fire, try
the vindaloo version; if not stay away from it.
You can get a very mild curry but you might wonder
about the point of that.
Within India some regions (Andhra, for instance)
prefer their food hotter than others.

12 Vehical Driver August 24, 2009 at 10:14 am

Even the most innovative and experimental fine dining restaurants (let alone more traditional ones) stay away from highly spicy foods because the spiciness overwhelms the other flavors. It works well in something like SE Asian cuisine or Sichuanese cuisine, sure, but, let alone with relatively strongly flavored broccoli, how could you enjoy something like fresh artichokes if your tongue is busy dealing with jalapeños? Per the hypothesis that people fancy things where they have the ability to make fine distinctions in quality, shouldn’t you expect the most enthusiastic eaters to pursue spicy food the least, as it actively counteracts fine flavor distinctions? David Chang may not serve the spiciest kimchi at his Momofuku restaurants, but the stuff he serves is arguably the best out there.

You are offering false alternatives. Most foodies enjoy spicy flavors and subtle flavors, just generally not at the same time. Spicy foods don’t damage your taste buds nor inhibit anyone’s ability to enjoy subtle foods.

I agree with Reuben Moore. People who don’t like spicy foods are people who I usually find boring.

13 Tom August 24, 2009 at 10:17 am

I share Reuben Moore’s experience w/r/t people who like and/or are willing to try spicy food. Part of that’s obviously signaling, of course, but I’m thinking there’s more to it than simply that.

14 Ned August 24, 2009 at 10:33 am

I agree with ‘anonymous at Aug 24, 2009 10:15:25 AM’. Sure, pain caused by capsaicin leads to surge in endorphins, but so does religious self-flagellation. Tyler, do you advocate the latter practice as well, and are you ready to ‘acculturate’ your children to it? You can think about it as ‘taking the spiciness to a whole new level’ : -)

15 William August 24, 2009 at 11:00 am

Oh post-hoc rationalizations, is there no subject you don’t taint?

16 jacobus August 24, 2009 at 11:06 am

Part of the problem is climate. Eating spicy foods and having to sweat a lot is less enjoyable if the temperature is less than 75 degrees. It’s not a coincidence that the spiciest food cultures are also in hot places.

17 Ted August 24, 2009 at 11:50 am

I think starch, not dairy, is the main factor in spicy food appreciation. If you eat little starch and stick to very fresh high quality food, you really don’t want to spice things up at all.

That goes for those eating their own native spicy foods as well as for those educated and intelligent cosmopolitans eating other peoples’ foods.

Try this: make your favorite Szechuan meat dish with larger amounts of meat, very much less the normal amounts of the spice, liquid flavorings and sweeteners, and very modest amounts of vegetables. Serve with a platter of crisp lettuce leaves instead of a bowl of rice.

18 Eric H August 24, 2009 at 12:21 pm

“Spices were invented to offset the taste of bad food.”

That’s what they told me in grade school, too, except that they were “invented” in Asia where some “spices” are interesting by themselves. Chiles are one of those.

Tyler, you yourself have noted the use of dairy in Mexican: cheese (especially raw). The blend is nice and allows you to eat very hot spice without bringing the meal to a complete halt. Quesadillas, mmm.

People prefer the variety of flavors in Mediterranean food and won’t try chile? Not very marginalist of them. Mexican and Asian pastry and dessert leave a lot to be desired, so perhaps those are better determinants of chile aversion.

19 Akshay August 24, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Chilies work as de-worming medication. Developing countries have worms to de-, and spicy food (give or take). Simple.

20 Mitch August 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm

The thing about spicy food is, it’s fine going in, but…

21 Bob Knaus August 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm

What Mitch said.

I used to eat foods a lot spicier than I do today. Now that I’m 47… I only want to enjoy the heat once!

22 RJ August 24, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Despite the ‘foodies’ comment above, 100% of the people I know personally who love extremely spicy food are unable to appreciate food with any subtlety in taste.

They are much like the people I knew years ago who smoked heavily; they were unable to taste anything less than intensely spicy flavors.

23 taion August 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm

The issue moreover is that none of the restaurants in the top tier of quality (to my knowledge) make heavy use of spicy food. Why is there nothing akin to the Fat Duck, el bulli, or Alinea in terms of price point that specializes in extraordinarily spicy food? Certainly those restaurants are as far from the normal fine dining mainstream stylistically as some restaurant that just seeks to overwhelm your taste buds with capsaicin.

24 dano August 24, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I used to think Tabasco sauce was hot. Now, years later, I’d rate it as very mild.

It’s a rare restaurant that will make a dish hot enough if I request it to be “spicy.”

Oh, and yes, there are things I consider to be just silly hot (Dave’s Insanity Sauce, et al.).

25 razib August 25, 2009 at 12:47 am

i can eat two habaneros for dinner, so i’m a man and you guys aren’t 😉 in any case, though one can adjust and become accustomed, there’s also initial genetic differences probably. people who are “non-tasters” have higher initial spice thresholds.

26 Shane August 25, 2009 at 2:57 am

“Why is there nothing akin to the Fat Duck, el bulli, or Alinea in terms of price point that specializes in extraordinarily spicy food?”

taion, that’s a true statement, but completely irrelevant. I don’t know any top tier restaurants that specialize in extraordinarily salty soups, either – but that doesn’t mean that salt isn’t an important component of top tier restaurant dishes.

In any case, it’s not hard to tell differences in quality of spicy foods. Salsa, wings, curry, and Ma Po Tofu are judged on more than just the heat. For these spicy foods, we know what “good” tastes like and what “bad” tastes like, and it is usually only weakly associated with the “heat” factor.

27 taion August 25, 2009 at 9:27 am

Shane: I would say the same for your comment. I interpret the OP (and the rest of the thread) as speaking about “spicy” food. Of course spice has an important role in dining in general. But food with an overall high heat factor does not feature prominently in fine dining – Jean-Georges is renowned for incorporating SE Asian elements into his cooking, including moderate amounts of spice. Nevertheless, I don’t see him spiking all of his signature dishes with habaneros any time soon. That is to say, while spice certainly is present, “spicy food” as discussed earlier is largely not.

28 techreseller August 27, 2009 at 10:34 am

Spices were invented to offset the taste of bad food. Since the advent of refrigeration, they’re really not necessary. Anyway, that “hot” spice (like that in peppers)is actually a poison. It’s sticky, so it sticks to your tongue and water does not loosen it. That’w why dairy-with it’s fat content-alleviates the burn, the fat molecules loosen the poison membranes from your tongue.

Posted by: Tom at Aug 24, 2009 7:44:03 AM

Wrong wrong wrong. This is a long held canard. Those people who continually masked the flavor of bad food and ate it would have a lower rate of reproductive success. THose who did not mask the flavor would have reproduced more, crowding out those who spiced. Spices have natural antibiotic effects, in essence they preserve food without refrigeration. Look at the distribution of cultures that eat spiced food. The majority live in hot humid climates. They had to have a way of preserving meat in particular long enough to consume it safely. Drying or smoking meats in a warm humid environment does not work well. Spicing it does.

29 A. Colbert April 5, 2010 at 11:59 pm

WAY off topic…but interesting anyway.

Birds cannot register the scolville units in hot peppers. Worked with a macaw once that his favorite treat was habaneros. He would eat as many as he was given. Usually 1 or 2, but he always asked for “pepper”

30 anon October 21, 2010 at 4:30 am

Talk about prejudices – to the poster talking about “fine dining” restaurants, there is a whole spectrum of exquisite dining experiences, including many spicy cuisines, that exist outside of these very rarified “fine dining” restaurants. I’ve been to my share of those restaurants as well and certainly enjoy them, but the pleasures of a Sichuan hotpot on a cold night in Chengdu are also incomparable.

Not all spicy food lovers have lost their sense of taste – after years of eating various spicy cuisines, I can still appreciate the pure and exquisitely subtle tastes of dishes as simple as Japanese yudofu. Many of us are just privileged to have the ability to enjoy the full range of culinary art.

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