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is "spicy" finally getting spicy?

Okay, though there still seems far more items on menus described as "spicy" which don't even register on the spiciness scale, is it just me, or is "spicy" really getting a lot spicier?

I was at a brew pub earlier this weekend and got a "spicy" aioli on some fries. "Sure. 'Spicy.'," my mind said. But it was darned hot!

And I just had a burger with green chilis and it blew my mouth off. I did not expect truly spicy chilis. I've noticed other examples of spicy actually getting spicier.

Or does someone's heat tolerance change over the years?

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  1. I think that the my spice tolerance is a little less than it was in my 20's. But I still like more heat than most people.

    I am always (pleasantly) surprised when I find something labeled 'spicy' at a non-ethnic restaurant that is actually spicy to me. I think it happens more today than it did 10 years ago.

    1. It is the opposite for me - at 64 I can tolerate much more spice than at 20. FWIW fresh chilis vary in hotness depending on the season.

      4 Replies
      1. re: kagemusha49

        Very interesting about the change in tolerance with years.

        By the way, the chilis I had were green Hatch chilis. I've had them quite mild before, but not this time.

        1. re: EarlyBird

          My two sets of grandparents have diverged in spice tolerance; one side has been eating spicier and spicier food, to the point that most people can't eat it. The other side sometimes rejects food as 'too spicy' even if I literally taste no spice in it. Family dinners are fascinating.

          It's possible that spice tolerance increases or decreases slightly with age, but I think psychological factors dwarf physiological ones. Whatever preferences people have in youth just seem to become magnified and entrenched in old age.

          1. re: Scrofula

            my grandfather grew his own hot peppers, and every year he'd take the hottest ones and save the seeds and plant them separate from the others. They were his and his alone because the heat level was so much that nobody else in the family could tolerate them.
            At dinner the rest of us would be eating the "mild" peppers and he'd have his "jets"
            his face would turn read and beads of sweat would form on his forehead, but other than that he never outwardly seemed to be affected by the heat

            1. re: cgarner

              Ah...but INWARDLY.

      2. I think Perilagu Khan has spread the word. He is the Johnny Appleseed of heat.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Veggo

          Juan Pepperseed, that is.

          1. re: Perilagu Khan

            Why a Spanish version of John--why not a Thai one? Especially considering that the vast majority of Spanish-speaking country cusines are not at all spicy--certainly less than US food.

            1. re: Wawsanham

              PK knows I lived for some years in the Yucatan, where habaneros reign supreme.

              1. re: Wawsanham

                What's Thai for Juan? Taiwan, mayhap?

              2. re: Perilagu Khan

                Always did feel we had some kind of special connection.

            2. I'm sick of spicy foods just being so over the top.It's never a balanced spice. So if it's so freaken hot (spice) that the food is supposed to be good. Why is this ? I can't taste the food.

              4 Replies
              1. re: emglow101

                Because not everyone is the same. Lots of people have high spice tolerances. That food you think is "so freaken hot" isn't hot at all to people like me. I taste the flavours behind the heat just fine. And, in some dishes, if the heat isn't there - heat as in how I feel heat - then it's severely lacking.

                1. re: LMAshton

                  Testify, baby.

                2. re: emglow101

                  Paul Prudhomme has said that if the "heat" is the first thing you taste, it isn't seasoned correctly. Heat should build.

                  1. re: emglow101

                    I agree with you. All flavor s should be nuanced. Not heat for the sake of heat.

                  2. In what region?

                    Seriously, this is a hugely region-dependent thing. In places like Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand, Malaysia, the food has always been spicy. Nothing has changed.

                    As for personal heat tolerance goes, I doubt mine has changed much, if at all. I've always tolerated highly spicy foods. I can eat Sri Lankan food like a Sri Lankan, or even hotter than some Sri Lankans, really.

                    14 Replies
                    1. re: LMAshton

                      I'm talking about the West generally, North America more specifically. For instance, where I could not get a decently hot curry 10 years ago - what was called "hot" on the menu barely registered as hot - now seems to be changing. I luckily CAN get some nice, hot curry. I like that.

                      I'm noticing more and more that restaurants seem to be upping their heat game.

                      1. re: EarlyBird

                        I think it still depends on where in the US you are. The man and I were in Indianapolis for a car show and were continually told that "the salsa was made nice and mild," and "don't worry, it's not too hot." I'm sure there are people in Indiana with high tolerances for hot food and who enjoy hot foods but at the mainstream places we were for the 5 days we were there we were continually "assured" that the food would NOT be spicy. (Coming from Southern California were were very disappointed.)

                        1. re: weezieduzzit

                          I too, would be disappointed. Two So Cal spice lovin' car guys at a car show. Sounds like a fun trip.

                          1. re: EarlyBird

                            All of us gals that go are car and spice loving, too!

                            1. re: weezieduzzit

                              My kinda honeys.

                              1. re: weezieduzzit

                                My kind of lady.

                              2. re: EarlyBird

                                Sinw I live in California I wouldn't go to the middle of the country expecting good Mexican food. Play to their strengths.

                              3. re: weezieduzzit

                                If a waiter told me that, I'd take it as a grievous personal affront.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  As guests we quietly bit our tongues, they tasted better than much of what we had there. I'm sure there is good food there but I think you have to know where it is and have someone local who likes it to show you. If we go again I'll have to tap the brains of some 'hounds there (though many of us stopped going because 5 days of going out drinking without good food to balance it leaves one feeling pretty lousy and who wants to do that over and over again?)

                                  1. re: weezieduzzit

                                    You might be able to score some decent cue in Hoosierland. I know Missouri is a much better than average BBQ state, so why not Indiana?

                              4. re: EarlyBird

                                When my wife and I first came to the US from England 40 years ago, we discovered that the chili powder sold in the supermarkets in California had absolutely no heat. We were trying to make a decent curry - we finally found some dried chilis that had some heat. The situation has changed but there are, i guess, still restaurants that calibrate their heat from a base of zero.

                                1. re: kagemusha49

                                  I know that England is renowned for its Indian food. I've heard numerous times that if you want the best Indian food in the world, go to London. But I wonder, 40 years ago, besides the Indian curries, was spiciness/heat a common trait of food over there? I always associate English food with the stereotypically bland cuisine. (I know, I know: there is a lot more to it than kidney pie and bangers and mash.)

                                  1. re: EarlyBird

                                    Indian food was pretty much the only hot spicy cuisine back then in England. Chinese restaurants might have offered a mild chinese curry. That's why, in a separate post, I said that my tolerance for hot spice is much higher now than then. About the only strong spice used in English cooking was English mustard (which is LOADED with horseradish)

                                    1. re: kagemusha49

                                      I love English mustard.

                            2. I sure hope so.

                              1. I love some burn and stinging BUT I have to draw the line when the heat catches me in the back of the throat and cuts off my oxygen momentarily!

                                9 Replies
                                1. re: MamasCooking

                                  When you can't breathe, you've hit the wall. But push through and you will encounter gustatory Xanadu.

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    Xanadu? PK, are you a descendent of Kubla?

                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      Aye. At yor service. And in my patch of the Gobi I'm presently working on the Khanflagration Jolokia. And with it, me and me horde will teach that scurvy knave Putin a lesson!

                                      (Why the hell is a Mongol talkin' pirate, he asks.)

                                    2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                      The sick-o thing about it is that it is a bit of a cheap thrill. Ya know?

                                    3. re: MamasCooking

                                      I draw the line when spiciness simply obliterates every other flavor. Just heat, without any kind of depth or complexity, is in an odd way bland itself.

                                      1. re: EarlyBird

                                        I agree but I have some sort of morbid curiosity about hot foods that I do not have about other *interesting* foods.

                                        1. re: MamasCooking

                                          Mama, that curiosity got me last weekend and I planted my first Ghost Pepper plant. I have 34 pepper plants total but the rest, even "hot" ones, aren't in that league. I just have to check it out.....

                                          1. re: weezieduzzit

                                            Be careful:)

                                            1. re: MamasCooking

                                              Hot sauce and salsas for everyone this Christmas!!!

                                    4. But, this is so relative. To some/a lot of people food offered in the United States is already generally really spicy (or too spicy). Over the years, it does seem to me that the US is on some kind of culinary bandwagon racing off to total spiciness with some chiliheads in the driver's seat. It's gonna get so that most people from abroad won't be able to eat food there (except for some people from Thailand or India maybe).

                                      19 Replies
                                      1. re: Wawsanham

                                        This is so untrue. If you don't want to eat spicy food in the USA there are way too many places ready to accommodate you

                                        1. re: kagemusha49

                                          Too many, indeed. There oughta be a law, bah gum.

                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                            Of course there are places that aren't spicy. But, even just walking through an aisle at a 7-11 looking at the different snack foods, a very large number of them are spicy--at least they call themselves that using terms like "fire" or "spicy". It is probably subjective if you actually think they are spicy, but I would find them to be quite salty and hot.
                                            The same for the comments about the Peruvian food upthread. In the US, people might think it bland, but in Peru it most probably is spicy--it's all in the palate of the taster.

                                            1. re: Wawsanham

                                              Suffice it so say that in 'Murica you can find just about any food you like and you can get stuff that runs the gamut from pabulum bland to screamingly hot and/or spicy. Over the last 15 years or so, the latter has become a bit of a trend on the country's foodscape, but it has hardly rolled like a Molloch over all non-hot/spicy offerings. You can find what you want. Non-chileheads are not starving in the streets.

                                              1. re: Wawsanham

                                                Walking into a 7-11 and observing a spicy product doesn't actually hurt people who can't tolerate spices (it's not like passive smoking) - there are plenty of unspicy products there.

                                                1. re: kagemusha49

                                                  No, but looking at the safety orange Cheetos does hurt. It burns the retinae.

                                                  1. re: kagemusha49

                                                    Obviously, you can find a lot of other things (hostess ding dongs or snocones, etc...), but the fact that so many snack packagings are embellished with flames and chiles does say something about trends in society and what sells.

                                                  2. re: Wawsanham

                                                    In Peru they eat guinea pigs. I wonder about people who eat cute furry things.

                                                    1. re: lesliesue

                                                      Wonder away. I've eaten guinea pig. Lambs too and they're much cuter.

                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                        Fair point. Did the guinea pig taste like chicken?

                                                        1. re: lesliesue

                                                          Yep :) The only thing disconcerting were the teeth! It's still a funny memory. The server was just SURE I didn't know what I was ordering (in Spanish). He went to the back and learned the word for guinea pig just to make sure.

                                                          1. re: c oliver

                                                            It didn't really have teeth, did it?

                                                            1. re: lesliesue

                                                              It certainly did! Here's a youtube:

                                                              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guD_H...

                                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                                having watched the first part of the video, i can honestly say that you are a far braver person than i am. i have a friend who once ate lion. besides being illegal (i think), it also made him ill.

                                                                1. re: lesliesue

                                                                  Nah. It's just meat. They're not pets there. They're like chickens. Commercially raised.

                                                                  As to spiciness, I just don't remember the food being that spicy. But it's been about 15 years and my memory sometimes fails me :)

                                                      2. re: lesliesue

                                                        Well, cows have cute eyes...

                                                      3. re: Wawsanham

                                                        I'm not sure i'm understanding - in Peru the sauces are usually spicier than what some Peruvian restaurants serve here in the U.S. That has been my experience in Peru.

                                                        1. re: mariacarmen

                                                          Chile, which has a very large Peruvian population is full of Peruvian restaurants--some cater more to Chileans and some cater more to the Peruvian community. But, the food in the ones that cater to the Peruvians, would certainly not be considered "hot" by what I think are American standards for hot. You might feel a slight sensation, but certainly not strong heat. Also, eating at homes of Peruvians, what would strike me more than heavy use of hot spices is the heavy use of mayo. I suspect, but can't be sure since I haven't eaten Peruvian food in the US, that the Peruvian food in the US would be spiced UP not down since Americans would expect it to be spicy.

                                                          1. re: Wawsanham

                                                            it isn't the food, per se, that i found spicy in peru - but the sauces that you could add to your food. and here, even the sauces i sometimes find dumbed down.

                                                2. Thank Sriracha and taco trucks.

                                                  1. nah. i went to a peruvian place the other day and everything that should have been spicy was bland. this place is a big fancy chain - which i think dumbs down their food to appeal to the average palate. chilis have their own flavors - they can be sweet, fruity, grassy, etc., and the heat comes in conjunction with that. heat is like salt to me - it makes things pop, brings out the best flavors in a lot of foods. i've only had one food item in the past 25 years that blew me away with heat (gasping, tearing, etc.) - where i was told "this is REALLY REALLY HOT" and it was true. no, i don't need it to be that hot, but i don't want all my food to taste the same, either.

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: mariacarmen

                                                      I sprinkled my most recent pastel de choclo with a liberal dose of aji rocoto. Mos' refreshin'.

                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                        rocotos are wonderful.

                                                        this place had an Aji Amarillo sauce put on every table that was as bland as mayo. that's when I asked for the rocoto.

                                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                          You mean you don't sprinkle it with sugar? --the most traditional way to eat it. I too like it a bit spicier (as it is an absolutely non-spicy dish) with maybe a dash of hot sauce. However, that is the equivalent of putting hot sauce on spaghetti, too: it might be someone's personal taste and preference, but would be considered really unusual.

                                                          1. re: Wawsanham

                                                            I'm not keen on sweet in general, so no, no sugar. The rocoto I sprinkle over the corn crust adds a nice little burst of heat, but is hardly overwhelming. It's still pastel de choclo, not a bowl o' Texas red.

                                                      2. A) I think you're right. There is a growth in the number of places offering plates that are "hotter". I think there has been a growth in the "spice tolerance" of the American palate. The significant growth in the Hot Sauce industry seems to support this. See, e.g., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04...

                                                        B) I find that a person's heat tolerance increases with increased exposure to casaicin. It's not unlike what happens with drinking or drug use (for, at least, one apparent reason - endorphin release). Thus, it is not uncommon for someone to "train" themselves to become more permissive with and appreciative of the use of chiles.

                                                        1. I think "spicy" is not the same as "hot." there are many spicy foods that are not particularly hot. But if it's heat you want, I'd say the American palate, on the average, is becoming more accepting of hotter food.

                                                          It isn't a matter of individuals' changing tolerance, it's a matter of the changing population, especially immigrants from countries with hot cuisines. People who grow up in an era with more restaurants serving hot food will naturally be more familiar with it, and many of those will like it.

                                                          I like reasonably hot food, but don't subscribe to the notion that "hotter is better."

                                                          6 Replies
                                                          1. re: GH1618

                                                            I agree--I like "hot" or "spicy" to a point, but it does not mean better. I think it should be seen as a neutral description: some might find it nice, while others not. To each his own.

                                                            The fact that immigrants are arriving from countries that have traditions of spicy food might be affecting US tastes, but I'm not totally sure of that either. Might it be that they make it spicier in the US due to American expectations of "exotic food" being spicy? Mexicans may eat (fairly) spicy food, but the rest of Latin America certainly doesn't, if anything the Latin influence should be making US food less spicy.

                                                            1. re: Wawsanham

                                                              "Might it be that they make it spicier in the US due to American expectations of "exotic food" being spicy?"

                                                              It has been my experience in Asia that, if you're white, no matter how much you ask for spicy, they won't give give it to you anywhere near as spicy as they'll serve it to locals. The expectation is that Americans specifically and white people in general cannot handle any level of spice.

                                                              1. re: LMAshton

                                                                I'll tell them I'm from Hungary...

                                                                1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                                                  Most people far from Europe probably won't differentiate between Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, and Sweden.

                                                                  1. re: Wawsanham

                                                                    My husband has had first hand experience with this,. travelling to China with his counterparts from Belgium... you're very right about this

                                                                2. re: LMAshton

                                                                  Yes, I've heard that. Alas, I've never been to Asia (well, Armenia and Georgia, which are Asia, but not in the way everyone means nowadays, i.e. "Asia=The Orient"), so I can't personally comment on experiencing that.

                                                            2. I haven't experienced this, but it would be good news to me. An example is Pace Picante sauce, even the 'hot' version is extremely mild.

                                                              5 Replies
                                                              1. re: Shellhead

                                                                Does anyone actually buy that stuff??? Well, except perhaps my brother :)

                                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                                  My Grandfather. He puts it on everything including Chinese and Indian food.

                                                                  1. re: weezieduzzit

                                                                    Years ago and ex-pat friend of Bob's who's lived in Geneva for decades was visiting. And took back jars of that stuff. I never did like that guy :)

                                                                  2. re: c oliver

                                                                    Yeah, it's pretty gross; but it flies off the shelves in the supermarkets.

                                                                  3. re: Shellhead

                                                                    While it's certainly not as easy to find, the Xochitl Habanero Salsa (labeled "XXX Extremely Hot") will bring a bead of sweat to the brow. I think its mere existence suggests a trend in accord with the OP's observations.

                                                                  4. <<"I was at a brew pub earlier this weekend...">>

                                                                    bars use salt and spice.

                                                                    restaurants use neither.

                                                                    4 Replies
                                                                    1. re: Gastronomos

                                                                      What does this post mean? I'm having trouble divining its intention.

                                                                      1. re: jmckee

                                                                        many bars ("brew pub") that serve food have food that is seasoned generously to keep people drinking. restaurants usually need to have salt and pepper shakers readily available. YMMV

                                                                        1. re: Gastronomos

                                                                          Well, that's certainly not my experience at a couple of local brewpubs here.

                                                                          But I still don't understand the second -- "restaurants use neither." You imply they use neither salt nor spice. Makes no sense.

                                                                          1. re: jmckee

                                                                            Well, that's certainly not my experience at a couple of local restaurants here.