September 2019

Some Like it Hot

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

While I’ve never made the connection between my proclivity for thrill rides and my obsession with spicy food, I’m warming up to the idea. According to the website Thrillist, affection for peppery food often points to particular personality qualities (mine). “Based on studies from the 1980s that demonstrated a connection between enjoyment of roller coasters and passion for spice, researchers discovered that people with sensation-seeking personalities (i.e. thrill seekers) were more likely to enjoy spicy foods. People who love jumping out of planes, pursuing adventurous travel, and trying extreme sports are more likely to amp up the Scoville count (measurement of pepper pungency) of their meals than people who prefer less risky activities.”

Further firing up my curiosity was a homegrown Carolina Reaper pepper—a recent gift and maybe a bit of a dare, presented in a plastic baggie at my place setting, from my friend Chad Newman, executive chef at Sea Grass Grille. (I have since turned his photo in at the Post Office for assault with a deadly weapon.)

In 2013, Guinness World Records declared the Carolina Reaper the hottest pepper in the world, averaging 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and surpassing the previous record holder, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. Newman admits he doesn’t eat these killer peppers or serve them at the restaurant, but he enjoys cultivating them and giving them away to his adventurous friends. He also keeps pure capsaicin oil on hand at the restaurant for customers who request added heat.

I took the pepper to Hinoki and asked Chef Chikara Yamagishi (aka Chi Chi) to slice it thin as an accompaniment to my sushi. Knowing a thing or two about hot peppers, the seasoned Japanese sushi chef donned his rubber gloves and gave me a questionable look as though to say, “You must be crazy.” The Carolina Reaper did not disappoint. One tiny sliver kept my tongue excited throughout the meal.

How hot is hot?
Capsaicin, the chemical compound responsible for the heat in spicy foods, is present in different levels depending on the chili pepper used. Habaneros are on the high end of hotness, boasting 150,000 SHU as compared to the jalapeño at 5,000 and the much milder poblano at 1,250. Tabasco averages 3,750. (Bell peppers contain no capsaicin and therefore rate zero on the Scoville scale.) Your tolerance, however, is individual. The seeds and white membrane of peppers contain the greatest concentration of the heat-inducing compound. For less heat, scrape them away.

While the burning sensation you feel when eating hot peppers is not physically harmful, it can be painful. When your mouth is on fire, chugging a glass of ice water is not likely to help; that’s because capsaicin is an alkaloid oil and cannot be neutralized in water. The best fire extinguisher? Milk.

In addition to milk, sugar can help neutralize hot foods. Honey and granulated sugar are both effective in “modifying your pepper experience,” according to a Journal of Physiology and Behavior study. Combining sugar and dairy (say in ice cream or pudding) could also help calm the burn.

Capsaicin can also be neutralized by alcohol, but a cold beer may not put out the fire. Studies show that drinks with five percent ethanol do not work any better than water. Higher-proof liquors can turn down the heat, but you’ll want to order them straight-up, on the rocks. Warm alcoholic drinks (like heated brandy) will increase the burn.

Acids such as lime juice, tomato juice and lemon juice can also help relieve the burning sensation in your mouth. Cultures known for spicy cuisine incorporate these ingredients in curries, jerks or salsas to help balance heat. Fatty food can also cool down your mouth. Try a spoonful of peanut butter or a slice of bread slathered in butter if you don’t have quick access to milk, ice cream, or scotch on the rocks.

But are spicy foods healthy?
For years, experts believed spicy food caused stomach ailments. But like many other “bad” foods turned good, more recent research, as reported in The BMJ (one of the world’s oldest general medicinal journals), indicates that spicy food, when eaten in moderation, can actually protect the stomach lining by helping your stomach produce less gastric acid. The study goes so far as to suggest that spicy food might extend your life: “Compared with those who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods six or seven days a week showed a 14 percent relative risk reduction in total mortality.”

The bad news? “The association between spicy food consumption and total mortality was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol than those who did.” Conclusion? Enjoy your spicy foods but slow down on the margaritas.

Experts also claim that hot spices can reduce inflammation, raise your heart rate, and help with pain relief. Additional health advantages of eating spicy food run the gamut from clearing clogged nasal passages to improving your mood, revving up your metabolism and curbing your appetite. However, if you are trying to lose weight or are concerned about nutritional value, you might want to steer clear of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Otherwise, think moderation. Rumor has it they make a delicious topping for mac ’n’ cheese! (You’re welcome.)

Be warned!
Although eating spicy food is generally considered safe, according to gastroenterologist Edwin McDonald MD, affiliated with the University of Chicago Medical Center, an ounce of common sense is in order. Here are his conclusions: (1) Spicy foods don’t cause ulcers, but think twice if you have irritable bowel syndrome, dyspepsia, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). (2) If spicy food causes you stomach distress, don’t eat it; (3) Don’t get spicy foods in your eyes; (4) Use gloves if handling super-hot peppers; (5) Regarding ridiculously spicy foods with warning labels, eat them at your own risk. 

Hot Stuff in the Lowcountry: Where to Find your Thrill
Today, virtually every cuisine around the world uses some kind of chili pepper or another source of heat: think peppercorns, horseradish, wasabi, and mustard. Here are a few places to get your kicks locally:

Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar: Carolina Hot Oysters; Jalapeño Cornbread; to drink: Pablo’s Peppers

Wild Wing Café: Hot Shots (sausage fritters);plus plenty of hot and hotter sauces for all your wings and things

One Hot Mama’s: Wings—Hot Asian, Devil or Rancherno; Devil Burger

Up the Creek Pub: Smoked Wings and Buffalo Dip; Blackened Tilapia

Salty Dog Café: Rings of Fire (calamari with Calypso sauce and island spices)

Street Meet: Pulled Pork Nachos; Neil’s Cajun Fries

Fish Camp on Broad Creek: Jalapeño Hushpuppies

Hinoki: Spicy Tuna Roll; Hinoki Roll (wasabi and Sriracha sauce for an extra kick)

CQ’s: Calamari Puttanesca

Holy Tequila: Mango Habanero Wings; Holy Guacamole with Jalapeños

Gruby’s New York Deli: The 42nd Street (#13)

Farm: Bloody Mary (to die for)

Chow Daddy’s: Spicy Shrimp or Fried Avocado Tacos

Big Jim’s: Buffalo Chicken Pizza; Nachos; Wings to your heat preference

Captain Woody’s: Kickin’ Camarones; Blackened Beef Bites; Buffalo Style Fish Sandwich

CharBar: Bourbon BBQ Chachos; Blackened Shrimp Burger; Buffalo Fried Chicken Salad

Mixx on Main: Grande Nachos; Calamari; Wings—mild to hot

Bullies BBQ: Zesty 3 Bean Bake; Jalapeño Cheddar Corn

Skillets Café: Calamari Rings or Fried Mushrooms with Boom Boom dipping sauce; Mahi Fish Tacos;

New York City Pizza: Buffalo Wings; Buffalo Chicken; Plus your choice of spicy pizza toppings

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