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The Million Dollar Question

I'm making my soy and wasabi dipping sauce for my smoked salmon pinwheels and, realizing that I had quite a bit of wasabi to soy sauce, I decided to dip my finger and give it a test. Seconds later my eyes are watering, my sinuses feel violated, I'm slamming my hand on the counter gasping for air. PERFECT!!!! And back in my finger went. Repeat.
All I can think about is my sister asking "How can you enjoy that??"

Why is it that we love foods that are hot or powerfull when we tear up, sweat and generally have the type of reaction as stated above.


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  1. One explanation is that really spicy foods release endorphins in the brain that make us feel that we are on a natural high.

    2 Replies
    1. re: breadbox

      On a less scientific note, maybe it makes you feel alive? And glad to be able to feel all those wonderful/terrible sensations?

      I love spicy food, but not usually to where I tear up...just to the point of gasping for air and searching frantically for milk.

      1. re: breadbox

        Endorphins are actually opiate-like chemicals. It's the body's natural pain killer. Their release into the bloodsteam from the endocrine (glandular) system happens whenever the body perceives it is under physical attack.

      2. i think it's b/c it triggers physical feelings that we don't normally have (and that we cannot achieve any other way) - and so it's fun. and it's safe - you know it will subside . . . in time.

        1. I love this question! I did some research with food and emotions in college. Sensations and other emotions that might seem negative can actually be pleasurable. The best massage teeters between pain and pleasure. The best roller-coaster is scary as well as thrilling. Who hasn't enjoyed a tear-jerking movie? And disgusting Garbage Pail Kids were a huge fad in the 80s. People report that a negative stimulus is the most pleasureable when its intensity is right up to the point where they can't stand it it anymore, but the experience instantly becomes unpleasant the moment it crosses that threshhold (just like MeAndroo reports). That's why you love your wasabi hot hot HOT. You want it as hot as you can get it while still being able to stand it. Humans are the only animal we know of that experience pleasure from a negative stimulus. Dogs will not eat salsa because, technically, the spiciness is a negative stimulus telling them not to eat it. My opinion is that this phenominon evolved because it encourages us to take reasonable risks (like eating somewhat spicy foods if there is no other food available) without going overboard, and allows us to adapt to our surroundings (we can increase our threshhold for a negative stimulus through repeated exposure). The reason this same phenominon didn't evolve in other animals might be because only we have a brain that's complex enough to be able to override what our body is telling us.

          3 Replies
          1. re: PlatypusJ

            On the dogs won't eat salsa thing....well, my dog will eat spicy (hot) food, if it's got meat in it (the breading and meat from very spicy chicken wings, for instance; or my nuclear chili made with hot NM Hatch chiles. I don't think he'd eat salsa plain, but then, he doesn't eat tomatoes plain, either ;-)


            1. re: Niki in Dayton

              Oops, I went back and saw that domesticated animals will but wild animals won't. So I guess it's not a "complex brain" thing as much as a learning thing. Thanks Niki!

              1. re: PlatypusJ

                Where did you read that info? I'd like to see it. I've marveled at my dogs for years. We are heat-lovers: habanero salsa, hot horseradish, chinese mustard. And the dogs will eat any of it they're given w/o blinking an eye.

          2. Well we don;t, well not jfood at least. jfood does not like spice, does not understand spice and does not cook with hot. The only exception is wasabi with sushi and horseradish with gefilte fish.

            second point, please tell us you did not double-dip the finger in the sauce, blech!

            3 Replies
            1. re: jfood

              jfood will be happy to know the sauce was for me only. Besides, I did wash it off between.


              1. re: jfood

                I'm with you. I can't take spice at all. I certainly don't like the feeling that I've somehow singed my nose hairs. Likewise, a *little* wasabi in soy but I'll pass on the horseradish.

                And to the poster below, *not spicy* does not equal bland. Flavorful does not mean "spicy" in the sense of hot; it's just "well-spiced," as in the use of spices, herbs, flavorings, or even just the enhancement of the natural goodness inherent in many foods.

                1. re: Emme

                  point taken, thanks. I oversimplfied.

              2. poor jfood, but I guess the guy is happy. I second the endorphin thing, and I find that spicy foods satisfy me in a way that bland food can not - at least some of the time, so when I taste something spicy, there is a pleasurable association. I found playtpus' post very interesting.

                2 Replies
                1. re: KaimukiMan

                  I agree with you on playtpus. As well as the endorphin thing.

                  One thing I do think is important is some spice. I think, like salt waking up flavours, I think at least a bit of heat wakes up your taste buds. It doesn't have to be searing hot if that's not your thing but I firmly believe that a little tingle on the tonge makes food tasted better.


                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    it's a tough cross to bear, but what the heck.

                    jfood always looks around and sees people grabbing water, sweat pouring off their foreheads, eyes tearing, heads shaking and inevitably followed by the obligatory, "WOW that's hot!!! Man is that good!!!"

                    It brings a smile to jfood. He doesn't understand it but anyone smiling while eating is a good sign.

                    BTW - Little jfood keeps a bottle of Franks Hot Sauce in her car.

                    Now true story - Jfood visiting the newly built Hyundai plant in Alabama or Mississippi or somewhere else (all he know it was a bear to get to). After the meetings the locals wanted to take us for some local cooking. Big smile. We pull off the main road, the side road and then the side-side road and pull up to this shack. OK jfood is game. We walk inside and the walls are lined with shelves and on all the shelves are bottles of hot sauce from EVERYWHERE. Hundreds of self-proclaimed "Best Hot Sauce" int he world. So we order and you just ask the waiter to "Bring that one please". So there are 10 bottles of these hot sauces on the table. And jfood tried every single one of them. Did he like the heat, absolutely not. But each had different flavors for the food and jfood worked his way through each.

                    To say that the flights home were long is an understatement but if heat leads to endo expulsions, jfood was full-tilt endo'ed

                  2. I love spicy foods. It saddens me when I read recipes that say to take out the seeds from peppers to take out the heat. Don't you want the full taste of the pepper? Can't you just use fewer peppers and keep the tasty insides? But I digress.

                    Spicy foods do indeed release endorphins, the same endos released from fear and anger. Some people love scary movies that make their hearts beat faster. Some people like to fight. Me, I'll take a spoonful of chipotle in adobo straight from the can or add an extra habanero to the chili.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: mojoeater

                      I love this post! I am married to a total chili head, I swear sometimes his mouth is fireproof! haha! I am learning to eat hot stuff, much to his delight. I recently ordered drunken noodles with chicken at a local thai place, and when it came my girlfriend said UHOH! we could see the flakes of chili in the food, and she could smell that it was hot. Well, it was hot, but it was also SO good I couldn't stop eating it. It MUST be endorphins or something, because eating that food didn't just taste good, it felt good! :) Now I'm adding more cajun seasoning to our chicken, and ordering more adventurous foods! yipee!

                    2. Enjoyment of pain. It's actually the same thing w/ carbonation. I read a few years ago about a research study on how long people can stick their tongues in carbonated drinks. The result was not very long.


                      1. I am so with you, I love wasabi, chilis or anything spicey and hot. My kids have had to learn to eat it that way, poor things, but they are now with me united with my hotter mo' better way of thinking.

                        Mine came from years ago and as a child, my Dad added Tobasco to everything he would cook. My Mother rolling her eyes at each shake of the bottle. Oh and that was after he had added the cayenne. I don't think I ever saw him add a fresh jalapeno pepper back then, that experience came later after he started reading Gourmet.

                        But as a youngster I adored my Dad, and wanting to be in on something that my older siblings were not, made it all the more fun. Heck they didn't like food anyway.
                        My husband has had to learn to like it hot. I try to tone it down for those of you that don't like spice, but to me it just taste so much better. Maybe I am addicted to the rush and not realizing it, I never think about that part, I just the go for the taste of the food.

                        1. That is an really interesting question, and something I've wondered about before. Platypus' answer is very interesting, especially since I've lived with a dog that decided he loved hot flavors. My SIL had been using chili oil as a step up from the bitter apple spray to get him to stop chewing on the corners of the furniture. It stopped working after a while...which we figured meant that he had gotten used to the chili heat and didn't mind it. Then one day I heard a clatter from the kitchen and found that he had knocked the bottle of Tabasco off the counter and onto the floor and was licking the crusty dried hot sauce off the top. (crusty hot sauce is my brother's issue btw, he is strangely incapable of keeping the bottle clean) Clearly that dog had learned that hot tastes good.

                          Related to the hot food (which I also love) I've wondered about the love of exteremly sour food. Now I have a serious addiction to salt & vinegar potato chips. I have an incredibly hard time making myself stop eating them. It gets to the point where my mouth is actually raw and will be painful for a day afterwards, but I just can't get enough of the salty/puckery/crunchy taste sensation. I also enjoy eating lemons straight. Same theory? Endorphin rush?

                          As for the hot food...I blame my brother. Whenever we went out for pizza when I was very little he would make me stick out my tounge and sprinkle red pepper flakes on it and then time how long I could stand it. And since he was my big brother that I adored, I wanted to impress him and would keep them there until my eyes were watering and my mom woudl have to declare time so I'd stop. I've tried doing that recently and they didn't even feel hot. I guess your tastebuds really do become less sensitive over time.

                          1. Wouldn't eat the shrimp cocktail if horseradish wasn't in the ketchup
                            Wouldn't bother with chips if salsa didn't contain fresh chopped cilantro
                            Wouldn't enjoy California rolls nearly as much if I didn't have wasabi and ginger

                            Come to think of it when I feel a head cold coming on I immediately brew fresh ginger tea and "spice" my way out of the sinus drip!

                            Long live the spice!

                            1. If I were shipwrecked on a desert island and could have either chilis or chocolate, I would go with the chilis without hesitation.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Veggo

                                please let jfood know when your heading out so i can pick up the chocolate. sounds like a win-win. safe trip.

                                no doubt the chocolate is the winner in jfood land

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  I'd figure out a way to combine them into one dish so I could take both. Remember that lovely chocolate in the movie Chocolat? With dark, dark chocolate and chiles?

                                  Personally in the winter I've taken to drinking hot cocoa with a dash of cayenne. (This is at work where instant cocoa is the best I can do...) Makes the cocoa just a little more warming.

                                  I'm become more and more of a fan of the heat of horseradish and wasabi, even over the heat of chiles sometimes. Takes the top of your head off, then goes away.

                                  1. re: revsharkie

                                    The siren song of chocolate and chilis - and how they could ever be an equal choice - is like a magic trick. Enjoy it, feel good, and don't try to unravel the mystique. It may be one of those anomalies that helps keep men and women together.

                                2. Endorphins are an amazing thing, aren't they?

                                  Now, I have to admit that I do not like spicy (hot) food. I don't like when my tongue goes numb because, besides the pain, I stop being able to taste the food. I like to taste my food. If I can't taste it, then why am I eating it?
                                  The only exceptions are wasabi and horseradish. I find that they don't linger, instead they waft through the sinuses like the blast from an A-Bomb, make the old eyes roll back, then dissipate fairly quickly and I can taste again. I guess I'm not much of a masochist, because I like the pain to be quick and mostly painless. What an oxymoron.

                                  8 Replies
                                  1. re: QueenB

                                    I had a friend when I lived in Playa del Carmen who would buy half a dozen orange habaneros each morning, and would eat them during the day like candy. He was convinced they have life-extending properties. At first it was difficult to watch. I liked a little habanero sauce on my morning eggs to get the perspiration started. Its just one of those things you can never explain, sang Tom Petty, like an angel in tears, or a runaway train.

                                    1. re: QueenB

                                      I don't think spicy food is painful if it's done right. And while szechuan peppercorns make my mouth kinda numb, jalapenos and habeneros certainly don't. To me, they add flavor and heat, but not pain. I'm no masochist!

                                      1. re: mojoeater

                                        Maybe they don't hurt you, but I get physical pain from both jalapenos and habeneros, and tobasco (sp?) as well.
                                        Maybe I'm just a big baby.

                                        1. re: QueenB

                                          I think I am so used to hot and spicy I have built armor on my tongue and palate.
                                          And the other thing is that I have to have my food HOT temperature wise. I wonder if the two ever had anything to do with one another. Not a scientist obviosuly!

                                          1. re: chef chicklet

                                            ditto (for me) what you said both above and here, chef chicklet! Same way.

                                            1. re: chef chicklet

                                              After repeated exposure to spicy food, the "spicy detector" on each taste bud down-regulates so that it takes more and more Scoville units to again register "spiciness."

                                            2. re: QueenB

                                              I'm the same as you, QB - I enjoy a tiny bit of spice/heat for flavoring, but not so overwhelming that I'm sweating, crying, and in pain. I definitely think it's a matter of building up resistance to it. I just don't feel the need to do so. :-)

                                              1. re: LindaWhit

                                                I'm no longer sure that love of hot spicy food is a matter of "building up resistance" to it.

                                                I always assumed tolerance of heat was an acquired taste until a daughter's fiance came to Dallas for their wedding and had his first Tex-Mex--his first even slightly hot foods. (His Maine family thinks bell peppers are hot.) He was in hogs' heaven from the first bite--and we didn't baby him one bit-- and he's never turned back.

                                                The only time I've ever seen his face turn red & his eyes bulge (as mine did) was at a Chinese restaurant when he and I simultaneously bit into one of those tiny red peppers I don't think anyone is meant to eat. (What kind of peppers are they, anyway?)