“It’s helpful to think of spiciness as something other than painful,” says Pamela Dalton, an olfactory researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. The burn of spicy food is not a taste; it’s a result of chemical compounds triggering an innate averse reaction in the central nervous system. At Monell, researchers use the word “mouthfeel” to describe that post-chile tongue-on-fire sensation.
Practice a benign masochism: By repeatedly exposing your nerves to spices, you reassure your brain that these are desired encounters, not threats. “We tend to like things that we experience over and over,” Dalton says. Psychologists call this phenomenon “the mere-exposure effect.” If you eat spicy food at least once a week, you’ll notice an increased tolerance within a few months. True novices might want to begin with one of the gentler chemical compounds, whose effects are shorter-lived, found in cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, mint or wasabi and build up to the fiery capsaicin in chiles. If you need more incentive to start down this path, consider that studies suggest that capsaicinoids have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They also aid in digestion and reduce cholesterol levels.
“Add the spice to a dish you already like,” Dalton says. Take a mouthful. If it hurts, wait two and a half to five minutes for the receptors in your mouth to desensitize before taking another bite. Don’t overdo it, and keep a dairy product nearby in case you do; molecules in milk attract and dissolve capsaicin. Put the food toward the back of your throat, where people tend to find the mucous membrane less sensitive. “Don’t get it on your lips,” Dalton says.
It might take you a while to genuinely enjoy spiciness. In chile-eating cultures like Mexico’s and India’s, children start eating capsaicin-containing foods between the ages of 3 and 5, but what scientists call the “hedonic shift” from disliking to liking occurs later, between 5 and 9. It might help to think of capsaicin as a recreational drug. Relax and let the plant compounds expand your ability to experience food in a new way. “You have to be willing to give up control,” Dalton says. “Trust that your mouth is not going to burn for the next year.”