Sometimes a little bit of pain can be a good thing. It awakens the senses and puts you a little bit more in the moment than you were 5 seconds ago. This is one of the appeals to eating spicy food but it turns out that food with some heat can be enjoyable and beneficial in many ways. Typically spicy food is pretty polarizing, you either really like it or you can’t understand how someone can enjoy a meal while crying like a little girl and sweating like a pig. But either way, every culture’s culinary traditions include spicy food and it is easy to see why when you consider the many pleasurable and healthful benefits.
Typically and most commonly, spicy food is spicy because it contains capsaicin, the active chemical ingredient found in chili peppers. Black pepper and wasabi have their own chemical reasons for being spicy, but predominantly, if you’re eating spicy food and enjoying the suffering, you are eating something that includes some type of chili pepper. Capsaicin is found throughout the pepper, but the highest concentrations are in the pith and in and around the seeds. Take a jalapeno for instance, perhaps the most famous of all the chilies. If you want a spicy dish, add an entire chopped jalapeno. If you want a milder, more “spicy with training wheels” dish, remove the inner seeds and pith (the white part), and you’ll be eating a much milder dish. The degree of spiciness of a food is measured on the Scoville Scale. The currently recognized hottest pepper in the world is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. If you’re eating something with “scorpion” in the name, you should already have some clue as to the type of experience you’re about to have. To give you some idea, this pepper scores a 2,000,000 on the Scoville scale, about the same as law enforcement grade pepper spray. A jalapeno, in comparison, only scores about a 5,000 on the Scoville scale.
Spicy food has many actual and purported health benefits. They increase blood flow and temporarily raise body temperature, both useful qualities especially now that winter’s grip is strengthening. In addition to cold weather, we are also in midst of the cold (sickness) season. Although not scientifically proven, spicy food may help combat colds and congestion through their high vitamin C content (more by weight than oranges) and the fact that they clear the sinuses and open up the airways. Spicy food may also cause the release of endorphins, your body’s own heroin-like pain killing chemical, and the same compound that is responsible for the so-called “runner’s high.” Because of this, capsaicin has been found to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of painful conditions like arthritis. Spicy foods have also long been the folk medicinal “cure” for a hangover. There is just something about a spicy meal after too much indulgence the night before that puts your soul and spirit back on track. Beyond their overall stimulatory effect on your brain and mood, spicy food may also stimulate the appetite by increasing the production of saliva and digestive juices.
In the culinary sense, adding chili peppers to food can give the food a more dynamic overall flavor profile. And just as acid and acidity can balance out the richness of a fatty meal, a good spice level can also balance out rich fatty meals. Spicy food simply adds a great deal to the experience of a meal and can really enhance the other sweet, salty, and savory notes of a dish. If you happen to eat too much spicy food to the point where it feels like your whole head and face are on fire, some remedies do exist. Water really isn’t the best bet, as that will only spread the capsaicin around your mouth. Something sweet like fruit juice can be helpful, as can something starchy like bread or rice. But the overall best way to combat a spicy mouth is a cold glass of milk or a milkshake.
So, as they say, some like it hot. Spicy food is an experience like no other, and can have many enjoyable and beneficial effects. Spicy foods literally heat up your body and help increase blood flow. They open up the sinuses, help with hangovers, and may produce happy and euphoric feelings and reduce pain through the release of endorphins. Totally gluten-free and totally at home in gluten-free dishes, adding a little spice to your meals can go a long way toward a more pleasurable eating and dining experience. It is good for the body, good for the mind, and as any spice-aholic will tell you, good for the soul.
Article Courtesy: Andrew Steingrube
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