Why I’m So Obsessed With Spicy Foods
Recently, I realized that one of the most common things I do is also one of the greatest mysteries — eating spicy foods. Consider, for example, the following phrases:
Koreans are obsessed with spicy food. (Kimchi, anyone?)
Asians love to eat noodles.
Everything’s better with sriracha.
The first two are common stereotypes; the last one, I made up.
On a fourth season episode of the TV show Kim’s Convenience, titled “Chammo,” Kimchee Han, played by Andrew Phung, stakes his ability to eat the spiciest foods ever. During a scene, he discovered his coworkers had given another coworker, Terrence, the nickname Wasabi, because of Terrence’s enthusiastic eating of…you guessed it, wasabi. Kimchee is Korean, Terrence is white, and he doesn’t want anyone to think that he’s not capable of eating spicy foods because it’s an Asian thing.
In other words, he’s playing into the stereotype of Asians being able to eat spicy foods. But as the show shows us later, towards the end of the episode, the truth is, Kimchee really cannot handle spicy foods — he just thinks he does.
During a scene where Kimchee is sitting around a table eating lunch with his teammates, he taunts Terrence by squirting a big glob of hot sauce on top of his already spicy Indian food.
“I think we can take it up a notch,” he says.
“I can’t…this is like…” sputters Terrence, making a face. You can tell that the sauce is kicking in. “Whooo!”
“Looks like Terrence can’t take the heat,” Kimchee smiles with glee.
Minutes later, he was on the ground. He’d somehow managed to eat so much hot stuff that caused him to faint.
It goes to show that some of us can take the heat, and some can’t.
I love this scene for several reasons. One, it plays on the stereotype that Asians typically like to eat spicy foods (which, being Asian, I can tell you it’s true….for me, anyway), and two, it dispels the notion at the same time. Just because you’re Asian doesn’t mean that you can handle spicy foods. But the allure is certainly there.
Several years ago, I discovered a brand of Korean spicy noodles called Buldak, hot chicken flavored ramen, in a local grocery store. I don’t remember what caused me to pick up the package and bring it home, other than perhaps it was on sale and I wanted some noodles. I sat down and ate one package, and I felt like I was going to die.
Sure, I love spicy foods. I’m that typical Asian who squirts enormous amounts of sriracha on top of their rice and noodles. But this was beyond spicy. This was torture. It felt like being punched in the face 50 times, then being forced to walk on hot coals.
I told my husband about it, thinking that he’d respond with, “Ugh, no thanks.” Instead, he took out a package and tried it himself.
“It’s very spicy,” I warned him. He tried it anyway.
As I sat on our dining room table that day and watched my husband eat the noodles that almost killed me, I watched with glee as his eyes popped, his pupils dilated, his breathing increased, much in the same way that Terrence did on Kim’s Convenience. He should’ve listened, I thought.
When I say these noodles were spicy, I mean they were spicy. Think: ghost peppers times two. My initial reaction, like my husbands’, was one of horror. Why would anyone eat this?! I thought. Minutes later, after I had a chance to chug down two glasses of water in a quick succession, my brain refocused, and I felt a sense of relief, of happiness. It felt like an achievement to eat these noodles and not end up on the floor like Kimchee did.
Still, I needed a break. So the noodles were absent from our household for a while.
Recently, perhaps because I lost my mind, I decided to try it again.
The memories came flooding back to me as my eyes water. I feel my nose running. I let out an enormous breath. I feel like my mouth is on fire. I think to myself, “Wow, my mouth is like a volcano! It’s gonna explode.” Across from me, my kids burst into a peal of laughter. Somehow the sight of their mom struggling with spice is entertainment to them.
On the inside, I feel like my head is about to explode.
But it didn’t. The feeling subsided several minutes later. And I feel happy again. It made me wonder why. I didn’t understand why something so dangerous could possibly give me a feeling of elation. So I turned to my good ol’ friend, the internet, to find out.
Turns out, spicy foods have a compound called capsaicin that makes your mouth burn. That’s because when you eat foods that contain capsaicin, your brain tricks you into thinking that it’s dangerous — i.e. “My mouth is on fire.” As a result, repeated exposure to spicy foods tells your body to produce endorphins, which as we all know, are the same kind of chemicals that’s released when you exercise or hug someone — it makes you feel happy.
Ironically, this is what spicy foods does for you — it trains you to love heat, a term that Paul Rozin, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania calls “benign masochism.” And as this research study on the relationship between spicy foods and mortality shows, you might even live longer, and are less likely to die from cancer and respiratory diseases.
Repeated exposure primes you to accept, and even love, spicy tastes. Not only that, those who come from a tropical or humid environment have an advantage — chili peppers have antimicrobial agents, which come in handy when there’s little or no refrigeration.
“The thrill of triggering this intense experience without (usually) any long-term effects is thought to be part of the attraction — as well as, for some chili fiends, the bragging rights,” wrote Veronique Greenwood in this article.
To play it safe, I only purchased a five-pack of Buldak noodles. It’s going to be awhile before I venture back into hell with a meal, but knowing what I know now, it’s not going to kill me after all.