Afraid of spicy dishes? Train your tongue to take the heat

Adithi Ramakrishnan
The Dallas Morning News

Jody Denton, a self-described “chili head,” ran an experiment with his two young daughters, Ana and Olivia. As they grew up, he cooked their meals just a little bit spicier than they wanted.

They’d complain. He’d apologize. But the very next meal, he’d bring the heat.

Years later, his daughter Olivia — now 19 — came home from college for the summer. Sitting at the dinner table with her dad, she asked him, “Is it possible you’ve always been making my food a little spicier than I wanted?”

Denton came clean. “That’s so cool,” she told him, shocked. Of her friend group at school, she was the only one who could handle spicy food.

Denton fell in love with spicy food at an early age and now develops spicy snacks for Frito-Lay as a lead research chef for PepsiCo Global Foods.

From sriracha sauce to reaper roulette pizza to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the characteristic heat of spicy food is in countless meals and cuisines. Sometimes, it’s tangy sweet and spicy. Other times, it’s a nuclear sensation that can set your whole mouth on fire.

Denton and other chefs from local restaurants say Dallas-Fort Worth foodies have grown more adventurous over the years, going outside their comfort zones to try spicier dishes.

We decided to uncover the science behind the spice, find out how D-FW restaurants incorporate that characteristic heat into their dishes and answer the burning question: Is it possible to build a tolerance to spicy food?

The aguachile seafood dish at José restaurant in Dallas usually features lime-cured shrimp or ahi tuna and is always served spicy. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

What makes food spicy?

When we sip something hot in temperature, like soup or milk, nerve endings in our mouths activate and send a message to our brains: “This is hot! Don’t burn yourself!”

A similar process happens with spicy food. When we bite into a spicy pepper, for example, chemicals called capsaicinoids activate the same nerve endings in our mouths, producing a heat sensation even though we aren’t eating something hot in temperature. In other words, the capsaicinoids trick our brains into thinking something is burning in our mouths, even though it’s not.

Capsaicin is the most pungent of the capsaicinoids in a pepper, says Alissa Nolden, an assistant professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of Food Science. In graduate school, Nolden led an experiment that investigated whether beverages like water, milk, Kool-Aid and cola were better or worse at alleviating the burn from spicy foods. She found that milk worked the best.

Not all spicy foods are created equal, she explains. Jalapeño and cayenne peppers contain capsaicin, but the heat in wasabi or black pepper stems from different chemicals that activate different nerve endings.

Nolden says scientists aren’t sure why some people can’t get enough of spicy food, while others can’t get far enough away.

For Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman, executive chef at José in Dallas, cozying up to spicy food took time. “I can’t eat a meal without having some sort of level of spice or something on the side to bite into,” she says. “But growing up, it just wasn’t my jam.”

During her childhood, Quiñones-Pittman used to tie a red ribbon around a serrano pepper and place it near her father’s plate for Thanksgiving dinner as a joke, since he couldn’t eat a meal without heading to the fridge for a pepper to chew on.

Returning home to Dallas after college, Quiñones-Pittman gained a new appreciation for spicy food, won over by the flavors of roasted tomatoes and garlic in her family’s salsa.

At José, the restaurant’s aguachile, a seafood dish that usually features lime-cured shrimp or ahi tuna, is always served spicy. Their camarones a la diabla entree has a nutty spice and includes a guajillo puree and chile de árbol, a small but potent Mexican chili pepper.

If guests like their dishes even hotter, the restaurant usually has one of three spicy salsas stashed in the back. José's “knock-your-socks-off spicy” serrano, golden habanero and black habanero salsas are made for the staff, but Quiñones-Pittman says they’ll bring one out if available when guests ask for that extra kick.

Chicken basil stir fry is one of Asian Mint owner Nikky Phinyawatana's favorite spicy dishes. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Spice, not spicy

Priya Shah, catering director of Sawaii Indian Restaurant in Little Elm, Texas, grew up in Mumbai, India. She would frequent roadside stalls selling snacks like pav bhaji, a savory vegetable curry served on a bread roll; and pani puri, crispy palm-sized puris stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas and spicy flavored water.

“That’s how I grew up,” she says. “Going to school, coming back from school, [having] that spicy, tangy food.”

The spice in Indian food is often misunderstood, she says. There’s a difference between the spices like cumin, cinnamon and black pepper in garam masala that give a dish its flavor, and the green and dry red chilies that bring the heat.

“Spice is not spicy food,” Shah explains. “It’s a flavorful blend of spices, which is incorporated with the food.”

Different regions of India incorporate different levels of heat. When a guest orders malai kofta, fried vegetable balls in a creamy sauce, Shah says the dish can only be enjoyed at a mild to medium spice.

On the other hand, Sawaii’s Kolhapuri mutton — a goat dish from the state of Maharashtra — is a spicy favorite. “It will make them just [say], ‘Oh my goodness, it’s very spicy, I’m sweating,’” Shah says. “But they enjoy it.”

Nikky Phinyawatana, owner of Dallas-based Asian Mint, says the best spicy Thai dishes to try at her restaurants are basil dishes like pad kee mow, or drunken noodles; and pad krapow, a chicken and shrimp basil stir fry. “It is a softer, fresh chili spice that you’ll even get to enjoy with the spice of garlic,” she says.

The heat in Thai dishes usually comes from fresh Thai chili peppers or dry red chili peppers, Phinyawatana says. Fresh or dried white pepper and black or green peppercorns can also provide a kick.

Phinyawatana is also passionate about creating her own spicy sauces. She worked with a friend to create a spicy, crunchy chili called Drama Queen Crispy Thai Basil that won Best New Consumer-Ready Product at Zest Fest, a nationwide spicy food festival held in Dallas this fall.

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Can I build my spice tolerance?

Have D-FW restaurants seen customers increase their spice tolerance over the years? “One thousand percent,” says Quiñones-Pittman. She says people may be traveling more and interacting with different cultures and cuisines that help them gain an appreciation for spicy food.

“I know it did for me,” she says. “Every time I go to Mexico, there’s a salsa or a chili powder or something on the table. It’s definitely helped me appreciate it more.”

Phinyawatana says with increased diversity comes increased exposure. In 2021, finance website WalletHub named Dallas as the fourth-most diverse city in the U.S.

“Having the restaurant here going on the past 18 years, I have actually seen a progression of our clients being able to increase their spice level,” she says, “from the first few days that we opened [and] the first couple of years.”

Shah says it’s been exciting to see guests venture outside their comfort zones.

“[Customers] ask me, and I literally warn them, ‘Are you sure you want it very, very spicy?’” she says. “And they [say], ‘Oh, I want it Indian spicy. I don’t want American spicy.’”

Food scientist Nolden says the food we eat when we’re younger can help develop our preferences when we are older. (Just ask Denton’s daughter.) But for people who didn’t grow up eating spicy food, not all hope is lost. Repeated exposure to capsaicin, the chemical that makes some peppers spicy, can increase our tolerance.

“If you’re an adult and you’re choosing what you’re eating, and you start incorporating spicy food into your diet, you can definitely learn to [tolerate] spicy foods,” Nolden says.

So it’s not too late to give spicy food a try, one hot pepper at a time.

Adithi Ramakrishnan is a science reporting fellow at The Dallas Morning News. Her fellowship is supported by the University of Texas at Dallas. The News makes all editorial decisions.

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