I imagine that most of you will, at some time, have eaten something that is much hotter and spicier than you thought. Your mouth burns, perspiration breaks out on your scalp, and you must have something to reset your mouth. What should you reach for to cool your palate?
This article discusses some of the things you might put on the table for that situation. But first, a digression on what is happening here at a chemical and physiological level.
We have around 5,000 taste buds on our mouth, mainly on the top surface of our tongues, with some located on our soft palate, cheeks and upper oesophagus. These taste buds contain the taste receptor, or gustatory, cells. These cells detect the five elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami. It is through the combination of these and our sense of smell that we detect flavours.
You will note that there is no specific taste receptor for hot or spicy – what is actually happening is that the pain receptors in your mouth have reacted to the chemical agents in spice. Spicy foods, like chillies, activate these pain receptors and send signals to the brain which help you interpret the food as being hot. They react first to warn you – this is the pain – then they turn off, making your mouth feel numb. This numbing is the body’s defence mechanism to protect itself against the pain induced by the spice. This is temporary and the receptors go back to normal soon, unless, of course, you have actually managed to kill these receptor cells. Highly unlikely, but if you have, then they will grow back in around two weeks or so. Personally, if you ate something so hot it killed your taste buds, then I would also be worried about what it was doing to your stomach and intestines. I have a friend who judges a vindaloo by how much it hurts “on the way in, and on the way out”. But let’s not go there.
There are basically three chemicals at play in hot food. They are pipereine, isothiocyanate and capsaicin.
Pipereine is found in black pepper and coriander seeds. Isothiocyanate is found in mustard and radish. It is what makes horseradish and wasabi hot. Capsaicin is found in the capsicum family, most notably in chillies.
Capsaicin is a remarkable substance. It is the active ingredient in capsicum or pepper spray, used to disable people in crime-related scenarios. It is effective as a topical analgesic, given its pain receptor overload capabilities. It is well-known for people to experience euphoric effects from ingesting capsaicin. This is attributed to the pain-stimulated release of endorphins. Hold that thought – it is this feature that is one of the basic reasons that Indian food is so popular. This is a topic I will discuss in a subsequent article.
Interestingly, all the chemicals mentioned above can be used in insect pest control.
So now you know what is happening, what can you do to counteract it?
What you do not do is reach for a glass of water. Although it may seem appropriate, as your mouth seems on fire, the water may not help at all. The chemicals mentioned above are natural oils, and oil and water do not mix. Consequently, the water will not reduce the effects of these chemicals on your taste buds and membranes. Rather, it may help spread the oil to other parts of your mouth. Wine has much the same effect, beer is a little better.
So, what should you do?
There are several good antidotes.
The first is dairy products. Cold milk or a spoon of yogurt will soothe your mouth and take away some of the burning sensations. A protein called casein in dairy products helps to break up capsaicin and offer some relief from its effects. Raita is ideal, particularly if served cold. I always prepare some form of raita if I am serving a particularly hot dish.
Sugar is next best. It is not that the sweetness that counters the spiciness, it is that the sugar absorbs the capsaicin oil. At an Indian banquet, you will often serve the desserts at the same time as the other dishes for precisely this reason. A sweet chutney is often served with hot dishes for its calming effect.
You can also reach for bread or rice. They all contain starch, and starch provides a natural barrier between capsaicin and your mouth, absorbing some of it in the process. Potatoes can also help in the same way, provided they are devoid of any masalas. I don’t often serve plain boiled potatoes, but there is always rice or bread if I am serving hot food.
Vegetables such as tomato and onion help. A kachumber is very soothing as the onion and tomato will work to neutralise the active ingredients in hot foods. You will notice that the recipe in this book for kachumber has a noticeable amount of sugar or jaggery which aids its soothing powers.
Lemon or lime is a very good remedy, again because it tends to neutralise these heat producing chemicals. There is a recipe in this book for nimbu pani, or masala lemonade. This is made from lemon and lime cordial and is quite sweet. The refreshing combination of lemon and sugar in a cool drink works very well.
The exceptional magic antidote is a combination of sugar and dairy. Sprinkle some sugar on a spoonful of yoghurt and your mouth will be remarkably restored. You might also consider making shrikand, a sweetened yoghurt dessert, to serve at the same time as the meal.
In second place is a banana and coconut side dish – of which there is a recipe in this book. This is simply banana, lemon juice and grated coconut. It has the sweetness and texture to offset the spice overload and burning sensation. Again, a staple side dish if you are serving hot food.
Now, I know I said we wouldn’t go there, but you might consider what happens after you have eaten really hot food. And the best answer comes from the south of India, where hot food is commonplace.
Their final course after sambar, rasam and a poriyal – none of which come in a mild version – is curd rice. Curd rice is simply a dish of rice and yoghurt. It is there to sooth the palate, settle the stomach and aid digestion. There is a recipe for it in this cookbook. Could be a good dish to add to your repertoire if cooking hot food.
In this post, I mentioned discussing the science behind why people love Indian food. That will come in a subsequent post, as will a treatise on why westerners just want hotter and hotter Indian food, a trend the Indians themselves don’t completely embrace.