Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I was having some very spicy food - So spicy that it was unblocking my sinuses [1]. I remembered that technically, 'spicy' is not a taste at all. The tongue has taste receptors for four basic tastes - Bitterness, Saltiness, Sourness and Sweetness [2] There is no specific taste receptor for Spicyness. [or hotness]

To repeat, the tongue has taste receptors which 'sense' the taste and pass on the information to our brain. But, there is no taste receptor for spiceness/hotness. The pain/temperature nerve-endings are used to transmit the spicy taste to our brain. This is what I meant when I said 'spiciness' is not technically a taste. 

Basically, some cells of the tongue literally burst when they enter into contact with spicy food. This pain is interpreted as spicy taste by the brain. In extreme cases, the tongue may even bleed while extremely spicy food is taken. When nature rebuilds these cells, it builds it even more stronger - So, it is tough to crack these cells again [3]. That's why, people get 'used' to spicy food. The food that was once very spicy doesnt seem that spicy after a couple of weeks. 

But, how do we measure spiciness of food? 

To measure spiciness of food, a special scale called 'Scoville scale' is used. This scale is based on the amount of 'capsaicin' which causes the spicy taste. This compound, is found in varied levels in different foods that we take. By measuring the amount of capsaicin, we can determine how spicy a food is. The unit of spiciness is 'Scoville units' 

The Habanero pepper of Latin America was considered the most spicy of all natural foods for a very long time. Recently, Naga Jolokia (or Bhoot Naga) pepper found in Assam and few other states of North-East India now holds the crown for the spiciest of all chillis (or peppers as they call it in the west) - The green chillis that we take are about 50,000 - 100,000 Scoville units spicy. Compare it with the spiciest Naga pepper which is about a million (1,000,000) Scoville Units spicy!!!! Recently, I read in a newspaper article that farmers found that Bhoot (Bhut) Jolokia peppers drive wild elephants away from crops.

According to Ayurveda, spicy foods have a pleasant 'after-taste' i.e, they leave a good feeling after having it.  So, go ahead and have some spicy food! 

Btw, if you hurt yourself with very spicy food, don't reach for that glass of water or a teaspoon of sugar! It will not help! Since capsaicin is a oil, you need something fatty to emulsify (break it down) - Do it with some cold milk / sugar, or even better - icecream! [Who said reading my blog may not be useful for practical purposes (he he)]

Btw, I wish all readers a very happy new year - 2009! I was travelling a lot over the past few days. I owe a travelogue - That is in works. You'll be seeing it shortly!


[1] I dont have a sinus problem per se. Suffering from a bad bout of cold - Damn the virus!

[2] There is a new fifth taste identified as Umami. Indian system (also Japanese and Chinese) identify 6 basic tastes. 

[3] This is the same priciple behind weight training / resistance training while exercising. By lifting weights, the muscles undergo micro-tear. This is the cause of the mild pain / strain after exercise. After this micro-tear, the body builds it back stronger. So, after few weeks of exercise, you have stronger muscles. 


dhvanii said...

Hey Sriram, once again an appetizing post !! I saw this recently discovered taste Umami (or savory) like you mention. I think it has more to do with the combined perception of the appearance of the food and the aroma of the food than the sense of taste..
I now wonder if Venky's and your taste buds are dead by now. Since both of you would order extra spicy in the Thai restaurant and on top of it add more red chilly sauce :) Or maybe you were inflicting pain onto self :)

Sriram Venkateswaran Iyer said...

Boss: I am reverting back to less-spicy food :-) - I hope not to inflict so much pain on the system.

I still remember how Venky and I used to order 'extra spicy' food in Thai restaurants around Chicago :-)

I still fondly remember our serious discussions to decide our lunch - Thai @ Rand Rd or Thai @ Dundee Rd :-)

simhan said...

Nice one ... One thought : Then how we differentiate between Hot and Spicy stuff? (both should result in damaging the cells, right?).

simhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sriram Venkateswaran Iyer said...

Narasimha! Nice thought! But I don't know the exact answer though.

I guess it might be related to the location of the cells on the surface and deep inside.

I'll sure find it out sometime and update you :-)