Food and Drink

Why Some People Just Can't Handle Spicy Food

There may be a heat-seeking personality type.

New Africa/Shutterstock
New Africa/Shutterstock
New Africa/Shutterstock

“It’s not hot enough unless I’m dripping sweat as I eat it,” a friend of mine would tell the server at our favorite Mexican restaurant in college, as he ordered the secret, off-menu hot sauces for his burrito. Both in awe and disgust, I’d watch him pour threatening levels of neon orange and green sauces on his food, as I relished the buzzy head rush from the standard medium-level red salsa.

As someone whose spicy food tolerance maxes out at sriracha — admittedly a tame fire compared to the ghost pepper sauces my friend savors — I wondered what’s responsible for our vastly different tastes. Basically, why do certain people flat-out obsess over spicy food? And what about people who can’t handle any heat at all?

The heat may be all in your head

Eating peppers feels physically painful for people who shun spicy food. But Chef Bill Phillips, a spicy foods expert and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, says the suffering is all in their heads. “Although you feel like it’s burning [when you eat spicy foods], it’s actually a trick of the mind,” he says, adding that spicy foods do not cause any physical harm to a well-functioning digestive system.

The chef explains that fiery food tastes hot because chemical molecules, such as capsaicin, excite pain receptors on your tongue that are linked to the sensation of temperature, not because it’s burning off your tastebuds. “It’s more of a sensation of heat than something physical. Interestingly, spearmint actually hits on the same receptor, creating a sense of cold.”

Are people born with a spice-hating gene?

Chef Phillips says spicy food lovers aren’t born with an affinity for hot sauce. Rather, it’s acquired over time, as capsaicin and other spicy food molecules deplete a neurotransmitter called substance P, which is responsible for sending pain signals to the brain.

This could explain why people from some countries, such as India or Mexico, seem to have a naturally higher tolerance for hot foods — they’ve been eating them from a very young age. “Children in Mexico actually snack on jalapeno-laced lollipops,” says Chef Phillips. Once people have become desensitized to the heat, they begin to appreciate other qualities of hot pepper and spicy treats just as much. “Some chilies have tropical fruit flavors, while others have tobacco and leather flavors,” he adds. “When you eat chilies, it releases similar endorphins to a runner’s high. You start to miss a meal that doesn’t have that spice.”

Alex Hubenov/Shutterstock
Alex Hubenov/Shutterstock
Alex Hubenov/Shutterstock

There may be heat-seeking personalities

Affection for peppery food often points to particular personality qualities. Building on studies from the ’80s that demonstrated a connection between enjoyment of roller coasters and passion for spice, researchers discovered that people with sensation-seeking personalities (i.e. thrill seekers) were more likely to enjoy spicy foods. People who love jumping out of planes, pursuing adventurous travel, and trying extreme sports are more likely to amp up the Scoville count (measurement of pepper pungency) of their meals than people who prefer less risky activities. 

But thrill-seeking doesn’t capture the complexity of attraction to heat; it turns out that men and women may grab the Texas Pete for entirely different reasons. Women who douse their foods in hot sauce do it for the kick, whereas men do it for the attention. “There’s definitely a thrill,” chef Phillips confirms. “There’s no doubt it’s going to hurt, but just like going on a roller coaster, you know you’re going to be OK at the end.”

It’s possible to train your tongue

The Internet is full of spice evangelists who can’t get enough heat, and they’re part of a shift in tastes in this country. “As a nation, we are trending toward more spicy foods. You can see it in Doritos. They keep amping up the spice level with capsaicin,” says chef Phillips. “People are also breeding chilies and creating hotter and hotter hot sauces with capsaicin extract.”

So where does that leave the less vocal group, who really can’t tolerate more than a bell pepper and a crack of peppercorn? Chef Phillips encourages them to build up a tolerance by starting out “low and slow.” He suggests trying small amounts of milder chilies, such as banana peppers or poblanos. Once those flavors start to burn less, up the quantity and start moving to hotter options, like jalapeño, serrano, or tabasco. Regular exposure will increase your tolerance slowly, over time. You may never become spice-head who craves Trinidad moruga scorpion peppers, but you’ll be able to survive a bowl of curry without chugging tons of water.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Joni Sweet is a writer who likes it hot… but not too hot. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @JoniSweet.

Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

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