Burning up for spicy food? Here’s the science behind it FOOD Amine 27 Dec , 2022 0 Jody Denton, a self-proclaimed “chili head,” conducted an experiment on her two young daughters, Anna and Olivia. As they grew, he made their meals a little spicier than they wanted. they will complain. He would apologize. But at the next meal he brought a fever. A few years later, his daughter Olivia, now 19, returned from college for the summer. Sitting at the dinner table with her father, she asked, “Do you always make my food a little spicier than I’d like?” Denton is now clean. “That’s so cool,” she told him in shock, being the only one in her group of friends at school who could handle spicy food. Denton fell in love with spicy food from an early age and now serves as lead research chef for PepsiCo Global Foods, developing Frito-Lay spicy snacks. From sriracha sauce to reaper roulette pizza to flaming hot cheetos, the signature heat of spicy food can be found in countless meals and dishes. It’s also a nuclear sensation that can set your entire mouth on fire. Denton and other chefs at local restaurants say Dallas-Fort Worth foodies have become more adventurous over the years, stepping outside their comfort zone to try spicier dishes. We uncover the science behind spices, examine how D-FW restaurants incorporate that signature heat into their cuisine, and ask, “Is it possible to build a tolerance to spicy food?” I decided to answer the sincere question. What makes food spicy? When you drink something warm, like soup or milk, nerve endings in your mouth are activated and send messages to your brain. Don’t get burned! ” A similar process occurs with spicy foods. For example, when you bite into a hot chili pepper, chemicals called capsaicinoids activate the same nerve endings in your mouth, making you feel hot even when you’re not eating anything hot. Moreover, it makes you believe that something is burning in your mouth. Capsaicin is the most pungent of the capsaicinoids found in pepper, says Alissa Norden, assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In graduate school, Norden led an experiment investigating whether drinks such as water, milk, Kool-Aid, and cola were good or bad at relieving burns from spicy foods. discovered. Not all spicy foods are created equal, she explains.Jalapeños and cayenne peppers contain capsaicin, while wasabi and black pepper heat are known to irritate various nerve endings. derived from a variety of chemicals that activate Norden says scientists aren’t quite sure why some people can’t eat enough spicy food, or why some people can’t go far enough. For Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman, executive chef at José’s in Dallas, it took some getting used to spicy food. “No meal is complete without some kind of spice or something to nibble on,” she says. “But growing up, it wasn’t my jam.” As a child, Quiñones-Pittman couldn’t eat without going to the refrigerator to chew on the peppers, so she tied a red ribbon around the Serrano peppers and left them on her father’s plate for Thanksgiving dinner. I kept it nearby as a joke. Upon graduating from college and returning to Dallas, Quiñones-Pittman found a new appreciation for spicy food and was captivated by the roasted tomato and garlic flavors in her family’s salsa. José keeps the restaurant’s aguachile, a seafood dish typically featuring lime-cured shrimp and ahi tuna, always spicy. Their Camaron a la Diabla entree has nutty spices and includes guajillo puree and chile de arbol, a small but powerful Mexican chili pepper. If guests want their food even hotter, there’s usually one of three spicy salsas hidden in the back of the restaurant. Jose’s “Knock Your Socks Off Spicy” Serrano, Golden Habanero, and Black Habanero Salsa are made for staff, but Quiñones Pitman says when guests ask for that extra kick says to bring one if available. non-spicy spices Priya Shah is the Catering Director of Sawai Indian Restaurant in Little Elm, Texas and was raised in Mumbai, India. She frequented roadside stalls selling snacks like pub bhaji, a flavorful vegetable curry served on a roll. and crunchy palm-sized puri stuffed with pani puri, potatoes, chickpeas and spicy flavored water. “That’s how I was raised,” she says. “Go to school, come home from school, [having] Its spicy and tangy food. Spices in Indian cuisine are often misunderstood, she says. There is a difference between spices like cumin, cinnamon, and black pepper in garam masala that give flavor to a dish, and green and red peppers that bring heat. “Spice is not spicy food,” Shah explains. “It’s a flavorful blend of spices incorporated into the food.” Different regions of India incorporate different levels of heat. When guests order malai kofta (fried vegetable balls in a creamy sauce), Shah says the dish can only be served with mild to medium spices. On the other hand, Sawai’s Kolhapuri Mutton, a goat dish from Maharashtra, is popular for its spicy dishes. “It will make them fair [say]”Oh my god, it’s so painful, it makes me sweat,” says Shah. “But they enjoy it.” Nikky Phinyawatana, owner of Dallas-based Asian Mint, says the best spicy Thai dishes to try at her restaurant are basil dishes such as pucky maw and drunken noodles. Pad Krapow, which is chicken and shrimp stir-fried with basil. “It’s a softer, fresher chili spice that can also be enjoyed with garlic spice,” she says. The spiciness of Thai food usually comes from fresh Thai chillies or dried red chillies, says Phinyawatana. Fresh or dried white pepper and black or green pepper can also provide a kick. Pinyawatana is also passionate about making their own spicy sauces. She teamed up with her friends to help her win Best New Consumer-Ready Product at Zest Fest, a national spicy food festival in Dallas this fall. made a spicy, chewy chili called Basil. Can you build spice tolerance? Over the years, have D-FW restaurants seen customers develop spice tolerance? “One thousand percent,” says Quiñones-Pittman. According to her, people love spicy food as they travel more and interact with different cultures and cuisines. “I know it did it for me,” she says. It helped me appreciate it more. Phinyawatana says more diversity means more exposure. In 2021, the financial website WalletHub named Dallas her fourth most diverse city in the United States. “I’ve had a restaurant here for 18 years, and from the first few days of opening, I’ve really seen my customers upping their spice level,” she said. increase. [and] first few years. ” Shah says it’s exciting to see guests step out of their comfort zones. “[Customers] If you ask me, I literally warn them, “You want it very, very spicy?” she says. [say]”Oh, I want Indian spicy. I don’t want American spicy. Food scientist Norden says the foods you ate when you were younger help you develop tastes when you’re older. For those who didn’t grow up, all hope isn’t lost. “If you’re an adult, you’re picky about what you eat, and you start incorporating spicy foods into your diet, you can definitely learn. [tolerate] It’s spicy food,” says Norden. So it’s never too late to try spicy foods—one chili pepper at a time. Adithi Ramakrishnan is a Science Reporting Fellow for The Dallas Morning News. Her fellowship is supported by the University of Texas at Dallas. News makes all editorial decisions. Arts Access is a partnership between the Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands coverage of local arts, music and culture through the lens of access and equity.