Spicy dishes can be delicious. Not everyone likes spicy food, but many do, and some like their food to be very spicy. A lot of spicy food has Capsaicin, a chemical element found in peppers and that constitutes the spiciness of some of our favourite dishes.
People in the Americas especially enjoy spicy food, and have produced food with Capsaicin for hundreds of years.
“Capsaicin-containing peppers have been cultivated in South America since at least 5200 BC. Since the introduction of capsicum plants to the Indies in the early seventeenth century, the consumption of capsaicin in the form of paprika and chilli peppers has become worldwide”. (Wood, 1993)
The (written) history of Capsaicin started about 500 years ago in Columbus’ journal. In it, he describes, on the 15th of January 1493, “that natives of the New World have the habit of eating chilli peppers with almost all foods” (Columbus, 1493/1986, p. 176 cited in Rozin, 1990). Five hundred years after Columbus wrote this in his journal, tourists are still quite surprised by some people’s spicy eating habits. For example, sometimes when tourists travel to Mexico, they have a hard time finding non-spicy food.
Though the consumption of spicy peppers is quite ancient, the scientific study of Capsaicin is not. In the nineteenth century, almost 500 years after Columbus, Högyes (1878) worked on the impure extract of paprika, capsicol. He came to the conclusion that “the agent acts on sensory fibers with considerable neuroselectivity”. In other words, that capsicol directly affects tiny receptors that can be found on your tongue and skin. Then, in 1955, Jancsó showed that the receptors often associated with pain perception, also respond to Capsaicin. Interestingly, he found, Capsaicin can activate such receptors but a high dose can deactivate them completely. These results started various years of increased research about the pharmacology of Capsaicin and its sedative effects. For example, Dray and Dickenson (1993) studied how capsaicin can increase our sensitivity, reduce it, and evoke responses such as salivation.
But what is it that we like about spicy food? Spicy dishes includes Capsaicin as one of its constituents, yet most people, I take it, would not like to eat capsaicin alone! So, if spicy food includes such a thing, why do we like it?
There are at least two possible explanations. First, that we like the whole even if we don’t like one of its parts. That is, that we like dishes as a whole because of its flavours, texture, and colour, yet we don’t like them to be spicy. If this is the explanation, then we would expect that we would prefer the same dish if it had all the other features, but was not spicy. We like it, that is, despite it being spicy. Second, it could be that we actually like some dishes, at least in part, because they are spicy.
To think about these two options, consider the example of Mole sauce. This is a traditional Mexican sauce that includes a wide variety of ingredients. It has many types of peppers and spices, and includes black pepper, cumin, cloves, anise, tomatoes, garlic, sesame seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate. So, if we enjoy eating Mole, what is it that we like? Is it that we like many things about Mole but would prefer that it wasn’t spicy? Or is it that we like it, at least partially, because it is spicy?
So, I would like to ask the lovers of spicy food, what does your culinary introspection tell you? When you enjoy eating spicy food, what is it that you like?
Högyes, E., (1878), Beitrage zur physiologischen Wirkung der Bestandteile des Capsicum annuum. Arch. Exp. Pathol. Pharmakol. 9, 117-130.
Jancsó, G., (1955), Speichrung. Stoffanreicherung in Retikuloendothelial und in der Niere. Budapest, Alakadémiai Kiadó.
Rozin, P., (1990), In Chemical senses, Vol. 2. Irritation (eds Green, B.G. Russell Mason, J. and Kare M.R.), pp. 231-273. Marcel Dekker, New York.
Wood, J. N., (1993), Capsaicin in the study of pain, Academic Press, London.