You don’t just taste a chili pepper with your mouth.
Eyes water. Palms sweat. Noses begin to drip. Tongues feel like they are on fire.
“Usually, these things are bad — they’re irritants," said Chris Simons, a food scientist at Ohio State University, who studies the unique ingredients we relish — or reject — with our entire bodies.
"You would expect nobody would like it. It just so happens some of us like those sensations."
The phenomenon isn't limited to spicy peppers.
The menthol in mint products leaves our mouths feeling cool and fresh. Carbonated beverages send a tingle through the nose. Onions make us cry, and Sichuan peppercorns numb our tongues.
And who among us hasn't suffered the swift punch in the nose of wasabi, horseradish or mustard?
Simons’ work largely focuses on a select group of food compounds that elicit physical sensations by activating the brain receptors that process senses related to pain, touch, or heat or cold.
“They’re actually activating the same pathways,” he said. “It’s a whole body sense.”
Chemesthetic compounds, as they’re known by food scientists, are entirely separate from the five pillars of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory).
They’re also different from olfactory flavors — the fragrant, fruity, woody, nutty, pungent and even decayed notes in food that disappear with a pinched or stuffy nose.
The body physically responds to the chemesthetic element of certain foods, diluting them with extra saliva or expelling them through sweat, tears or nasal drip.
Humans are the only species who dig it. Other animals won’t touch painful foods such as chili peppers.
“Most smart animals don’t continue to eat it, but we do," Simons said. "Our enjoyment of it is purely human.
"And there’s a continuum: Some people don’t like it at all, and then there are the chili-heads.”
For those who enjoy such dining experiences, Simons offered tips for enjoying his favorite spicy dish, chicken mole.
First, mindfully focus on the signals that your body is sending. Noticing them will elevate your experience of the meal.
And. because capsaicin — the pepper’s fiery compound — is fat- and alcohol-soluble, consider pairing the dish with a glass of beer or milk, which will do a better job of cooling you off and dissolving the pain.
— Marion Renault explores the science of food in her monthly Matters of Taste column for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @MarionRenault on Twitter.
WES AND PABLITO'S POBLANO MOLE
Adapted from a recipe in "Secrets of the Tsil Cafe" by Thomas Fox Averill
The heat can be turned up or down by adjusting the selection of hot versus mild peppers.
• 1 dozen tomatoes
• 6 ancho chilies (dried poblano peppers), reconstituted in water
• 2 chipotle peppers, reconstituted in water
• ½ cup roasted peanuts
• 3 onions
• 6 big cloves of garlic
• 2 teaspoons ground achiote seeds
• 1 teaspoon cumin
• Salt to taste
• ¼ cup cocoa
• ¼ cup sunflower seeds roasted almost to blackness
• ¼ cup mescal (or tequila)
• 2 teaspoons vanilla
• 2 tablespoons maple syrup
• 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (or more to taste)
• Turkey (dark meat) or chicken (legs and thighs)
Blend together all of the sauce ingredients to smooth. Heat until bubbling and add turkey or chicken. Cook for two hours until sauce thickens and turkey is coming off the bones. Add water if mole is too thick.
The recipe makes a lot, so we usually divide by half and still have leftovers for 4.