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Feature Sun Nov 18 2012

Is it Hot or is it Spicy?

It was at a local bar that my friend remarked, through a face smeared with buffalo sauce, that the wings he was noshing on were particularly hot. I perked up from my beer. "Or would they be spicy?" I questioned. He looked at me with an expression bordering annoyed and confused: "No...they would be hot?"

I wasn't satisfied. And so the question was posed: Is it hot or is it spicy?

Chicago, which boosts a diverse mixture of culinary camps who spend an unnatural amount of time searching for the best this or the best that, definitely has its fair share of the avid heat seeker. The hot and spicy craze has taken on popularity nationally with the television show "Man vs. Food," the popular sauce Sriracha, a culinary world that blends spicy cuisines from across the globe, and the arrival of the ghost pepper (Naga Bhut Jolokia), previously the hottest commercially available pepper (but trumped overall by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion in 2011). I don't have data on the amount of hot sauces in the market, but we love to bottle pain for pleasure, and what was once used conservatively is now poured onto our food without abandon. But I wanted to know if there really was a difference between hot or spicy, or if it was just semantics driven by good marketing that some big ad agency started back in the '50s.

I started my journey at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) here in Chicago, which eventually led me to a team at the international spice and seasonings company McCormick. Turns out, food science believes there is a difference.

"From a consumer standpoint, heat can be misconstrued," says Jason Ridgway, manager of Corporate Sensory and Consumer Science at McCormick. "When something is hot, that refers to temperature, which is noted by a burning sensation that is triggered by the trigeminal nerve in the back of the throat. On the other hand, spicy is the combination of heat and the perception of other spices that are picked up through the olfactory system. Heat can also be measured through the Scoville Scale, whereas spice is more subjective and not as well-defined. You can say that hot is more one-dimensional, where spicy would be more complex."

chilitemp.jpgThe Scoville Scale measures the level of heat in a pepper through an extraction and sugar dilution method until heat is no longer present. The number of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) indicates the amount present of capsaicin, the chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings in the skin and mucus membranes. Tabasco is 2,500-5,000 SHU, while Sriracha is 2,200. The Scorpion can reach up to 2,000,000 SHU while the Chile Institute claims the Ghost pepper averages around 1,000,000 SHU, about 200 times hotter than your standard — the jalapeno, which averages 5,500. (For reference, US commercial grade pepper spray ranges from 2 million to 5 million SHU).

Since spice can't be measured, it becomes open to personal and cultural interpretation. One person's hot could be one person's spicy. While heat is quantitative, spicy is qualitative.

But a distinction exists in the fine line of spicy versus hot. "Once you get into heat levels that go beyond flavor," says Ridgway, "you are just dealing with pure capsicum." Some good local examples of the higher end of heat are Jake Melnick's hot wings (made with the Ghost pepper) or Bricks Pizza's Super Painful Pizza. More on that later.

That begs the psychological question: from where did our love of transcending flavor and scorching our tongue come? According to psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania, when we eat something hot, we are entertaining our "benign masochism" — a state in which we trick the mind into becoming excited by activities that would inherently be dangerous (like setting your mouth on fire and jumping out of a plane). This theory could explain why some of us will happily eat hot peppers, endure body piercings and smoke cigarettes despite our bodies not being manufactured to enjoy this level of pain.

So if flavor is still present, you are technically still in the spice zone — albeit a hot one? And would the correct terminology then be spicy hot?

I wanted to test this theory of the fine line between hot and spicy and this "benign masochism." Sticky Rice (4018 N. Western Ave,), one of the only Thai places I have come across to make my jalapeno-loving, born and raised on Tabasco tongue sit over a bowl of curry and take deep breaths in satisfying pain — seemed like the great place to start. I walked in on a weeknight and approached the counter asking for the hottest thing on the menu. Too many minutes and an awkward communication breakdown later, I ended up ordering a well-known spicy Thai dish, the papaya salad and the red chili curry, both at the hot level. The heat was minimal at first, nothing I couldn't handle. I then went in for the curry, adding in extra chili pepper to kick it up a notch. Again, things were looking good. But then, something happened and that familiar Lamaze breathing technique kicked in as I shoved another spoonful of curry in my mouth. More Lamaze breathing and sniffling ensued as I downed another spoonful. You would think I would stop as my tongue started to realize it was literally on fire, but no — I went in harder. It had happened, I couldn't stop; my benign masochism had kicked in.

photo (49).jpgWith my palette warmed up, I recalled Bricks' Super Painful Pizza attempted by many — a normal pepperoni pizza ramped up with Bricks' special Endorphin Rush hot sauce and Scotch Bonnet peppers, a pepper that is third to the aforementioned Scorpion (100,000-350,000 SHU). If I really wanted to investigate heat, this is where I needed to be. I let this thought linger for about a month, recalling my unfortunate run in with a habañera pepper, a pot of chili and contacts lenses. I decided good reporting demands risk-taking.

Unfortunately (or rather fortunately), Bricks currently doesn't have the Super Painful Pizza because they are not able to source the Scotch Bonnet peppers, but we managed to convince the kitchen to add the endorphin sauce to the Painful Pizza. This how it went down:

I wish I had kept the camera rolling because it only got worse. I also learned that a nice, crisp cider makes a good replacement for milk, which is known for is cooling properties (that cooling is due to casein binding with the capsaicin). I managed to finish my slice, but I looked at the other casualties at the table with despair; I was tapping out of this round, and so were they.

So in the question of is it hot or spicy, do we really have an answer? Next time you're about to exclaim if something is spicy or hot, ask yourself if you're dealing with flavor that's hot, or just pure, raw capsicum. If you're not sure, stick with calling it spicy hot: you may just start a trend, or a new band name.

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Bone Lee Tadpole / November 19, 2012 9:21 AM

We strive for a perfect blend of Heat and Flavor with every product... Hence the name "Hot and Tasty"...!!!!!

alan lake / November 25, 2012 6:33 PM

Intriguing. Well done.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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