As residents of the internet, none of us are strangers to spicy takes—or simply put, controversial opinions. While my personal policy is never to yuck anyones yums, there’s just one thing I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around: extremely spicy food. To the point that people just cry when they eat it.
My favorite illustration of pointlessly spicy food is the show “Hot Ones.” If you’re unfamiliar, “Hot Ones” is an online show on the First We Feast YouTube account where celebrities answer hot questions while eating increasingly hot chicken wings.
This show literally makes celebrities cry because of how spicy the wings are (I mean, guys, Terry Crews actually hallucinated while he was on this show because of how spicy the wings are). While I understand the entertainment value of this show, I don’t understand why people would just straight up eat balls of fire.
Don’t get me wrong, I love spicy food. I just find that extremely spicy food—to the point of tears, hallucination and potential hospitalization—is so unnecessary.
‘Spicy’ isn’t a flavor
When it comes to describing food, we use words like salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami. If the dish you’re eating just tastes “spicy,” it doesn’t taste like anything at all. Spice (or heat) is a sensation. According to a paper in the National Center for Biotechnology Information on how our sense of taste works, the spice we “taste” in food isn’t flavor at all, it’s pain signals our taste buds send to our brain.
With this line of logic, describing food as just spicy would be akin to calling food just cold. It contributes to the experience, but it doesn’t really taste like anything. You might be wondering, “But how about when we cook? Then what is ‘spicy’ to cooking?”
Spice with a purpose
I would argue that when it comes to cooking, spice is like MSG. It should enhance the taste and overall experience of the dish.
One of my favorite examples of this would be Korean cuisine. As a child, I absolutely detested spicy food. I thought it was needless and just ruined the experience of eating. Up to this day, I still have leftover trauma from when I bit into a ripe bird’s eye chili (seeds and all!) without knowing what it was. It all changed though when I went to college.
There were at least eight Korean restaurants within a two-block radius from where I lived. I always associated Korean food with spiciness, so I often shied away from invitations from friends. The one time I decided to accept was after a rough night of drinking and dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” My friends and I were starving and one of them missed the taste of home.
I reluctantly agreed to come, promising myself to just order some rice and whatever looked least threatening. When the food arrived, a bubbling bowl of kimchi-jjigae was wordlessly set down in front of us along with what felt like a dozen other plates filled with side dishes. On the insistence of my friend who knew I despised spicy food, I gave the bright orange stew a try.
Then, something clicked in my alcohol-addled brain.
Aside from the literal heat from the jjigae, the sensation that I registered was sour. The sourness from the kimchi was quickly followed by a slight burst of spice that immediately made me want to inhale the entire bowl.
Instead of just eating a bolt of lightning, it enhanced the entire experience of eating. It woke up my brain from the tequila shots I had earlier and soothed a few aches I didn’t know I even had. Instead of going straight for the rest of the bowl, I ordered another one just for myself.
That kimchi-jjigae changed my perception of the role spice has in cooking.
Simply put, it was spice with a purpose.
From that moment, I knew I was a convert. It felt like the first time I listened to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the first time I sat in an actual theater on Broadway. There was an internal shift—a sort of adrenaline rush and a feeling of rightness in every mountain-sized bite I ate in the wee hours of the morning.
To me, it was a feeling worth chasing after.
Like with most things in life, everything should have a purpose. In cooking, adding spice shouldn’t just aim to start a forest fire in your mouth. It should intensify the flavors that are present on the plate and make the entire experience one worth remembering and ultimately repeating.
If you like the feeling of a grease fire inside your mouth, that’s okay. Again, I try my best not to yuck the yums of others, but spice cannot stand on its own. Spice should be a ladder to help ingredients reach heights they cannot by themselves.