Sichuan Lava Cuisine & The Top 4 Most Common Myths About Spicy Food
The purpose of my self-destructive side trip to Chongqing was to eat at 夜富火锅, home of the spiciest hotpot on the planet (chunks of meat doused in a scalding broth of Sichuan chili and flower peppers, so spicy it’ll have you hallucinating). In my vast idiocy, I thought that I could handle it.
Chongqing is one of the three culinary centers of Sichuanese “Lava Cuisine,” the fieriest cooking style of the world kitchen. The chefs of Sichuan are famous for manipulating the bold flavors of chili, peanut, ginger, chili, sesame, chili, chili, chili, garlic, chili, and the Sichuan flower pepper—a relative of the chili that’s so mouth-numbing that it transcends the word ‘spicy,’ so that the Chinese had to invent a whole new word to describe the sensation: 麻辣, or mala. It is so aggressive that I started coughing upon stepping into the hotpot restaurant.
Yefu Huoguo (夜富火锅) was a no-nonsense joint, filled with sweaty, red-faced Sichuanese men hunkered over their hotpots, tears streaming down their faces and wincing at each bite, as if they were eating sadness itself.
I pulled up a seat and selected my hotpot.
Fifteen minutes later, I was stumbling back out the door, violently dizzy, hands numb and shaking, laughing hysterically to myself. The tables around me also had a wholesome chuckle.
I bought extra toilet paper on the way home, before trudging into the bathroom and staring down the toilet in fear. According to Sichuanese tradition this was a healthy and wonderful experience, as the chili-heat was keeping my insides dry from the nasty, humid climate. This would have been reassuring had I lived in make-believe world. But instead, it felt like the tiniest fart might singe off my ass hairs. To make matters worse, I’d been told by countless other travelers that extremely spicy food is bad for you—that it damages your stomach and tongue and robs you of your sense of taste.
I spent the night clutching the toilet seat like a life raft, and the next morning I set out on a mission to discern the fiction from the fact. So now, after nearly a month of modest research and experimentation, I’ve compiled my most interesting findings into this week’s tidbit of Backpackology—a list of the top four most common lies we’re told about spicy food.
Myth #4: Spicy Foods Are Bad For Your Stomach
Long, long ago, back in 1982, ye olde scientists believed that spicy foods caused peptic ulcers. Certain spices were known to trigger the excess production of stomach acid that eats away at your mucosal lining and causes ulcers—or so it was believed.
“LOL, fuck that,” scoffed Dr. Barry Marshall, blasting his habanero taco with pepper spray.
Marshall thought spicy foods might irritate ulcers, but he theorized (with little evidence whatsoever) that ulcers resulted from a relatively unknown bacterium named Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). He set out to prove his theory with a lengthy experiment involving pigs. It didn’t yield the results he wanted, and the good doctor was not a happy birthday boy.
I imagine there must be a rule in the Scientist Handbook that says that if you have no evidence to support an obscure claim regarding some dangerous bacteria, but there is evidence that suggests you’re wrong, you should probably call it a day and shift your focus to cancer research or something.
“Hey man,” said the other scientists, “You should seriously give it a rest.”
But Marshall wasn’t listening.
Did he start lobbying for more funding? Put together a fancy Powerpoint? Start testing on monkeys?
He put an entire petri dish of H. pylori in his mouth, gave his lace-pantied associates the finger, mumbled, “Fuck the system,” and then swallowed the entire thing. Three days later his stomach exploded into a positive jamboree of peptic ulcers.
Marshall was overjoyed.
He was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, and thanks to him you can now drink a whole bottle of hot sauce without worrying about your fragile tummy. Unless you already have a peptic ulcer, in which case you will start vomiting blood.
Myth #3: Spicy Food Kills Taste Buds
This makes sense for two reasons; one, because ingesting spicy food feels like licking a Taser, and two, because the more spicy food you eat, the more spice you’ll require to achieve the same effect.
Because science, motherfucker. The chili plant depends on birds to eat its seeds and defecate them over a large area. But the chili is vulnerable to mammals that can chew and destroy the seeds, so it produces a chemical compound named capsaicin, which is an irritant for mammals.
I could go on to explain how it works with TRPV1 channels and trigeminal chemoreceptors, but my grasp of biochemistry hovers somewhere around Dora the Explorer level, so it would involve a shitload more research and I’d risk tumbling down a Wikipedia k-hole. So in basic terms: the capsaicin works by binding to heat-detecting neurotransmitters in your mouth and confusing them. These neurotransmitters then tell your brain that your tongue has been ripped out with a fire poker and bear-maced. In response, your horrified brain excretes a long, unpronounceable chemical (C63H98N18O13S) nicknamed ‘Substance P’. (The P stands for Pain and from my understanding it is not a fun).
With habitual exposure to capsaicin, your brain depletes its pre-synaptic Substance P, eventually resulting in a pain tolerance to capsaicin. When this happens, you can eat stuffed habaneros like gumdrops without breaking a sweat. But what carnage would that wreak upon your colon…
Myth #2: Spicy Food Causes Diarrhea
Despite all previous episodes involving my vindictive, mutinous colon, Dr. Ankush Basal asserts that this is a baseless myth. He explains that spicy foods are no more likely to make you weep acid tears out the backside than fried foods. It all depends on the individual’s diet, gut flora, and exocrine functions.
Interestingly, I have found several (admittedly un-academic) sources alleging that spicy foods can induce diarrhea. They claim that when the capsaicin irritates the mucosal lining of the stomach and intestines, the body inundates the digestive track with water to dilute and relieve the symptoms. The irritant waste is then rushed out of the system, and because less water gets absorbed in transit, the end result is an Olympian sprint to the toilet followed by a hellish pudding cannon.
Not only does this theory hold water (I’ve got puns out the ass!), but the experiment I filmed below supports this claim. The stroke-inducing heat of the curry was all fun and games going down, but the next day it was nothing short of a rectal holocaust.
Myth #1: Water Cools The Palette
Trying to quell spiciness with water is like trying to stop a brush fire with a leaf-blower—it will only make your day worse. Capsaicin is an oil-like “hydrophobic hydrocarbon,” which is fancy city-folk talk for ‘it doesn’t mix with water.’ Drinking water will only spread the capsaicin around, punishing more neurotransmitters.
Milk is your true savior, as it contains casein, a fat-loving compound that binds to capsaicin and washes it away. After a fiery Bombay curry and cold, remedial glass of milk, it only makes sense for Indians to worship the cow.
It’s often rumored that yoghurt, cheese, lime, beer, tequila, rice, orange juice, and bread can also relieve spiciness. So to test this myth, I conducted an extra scientific experiment to see which foods would cool my mouth after eating a volcanically spicy vindaloo curry (one of the hottest Indian dishes).
“I want the vindaloo to be as spicy as possible without being completely inedible,” I asked the man at India Palace.
He furrowed his brow in concern. “Are you sure?”
He cocked his head. “Really really?”
I nodded. FOR SCIENCE!
He stared at me hard for a moment, then suddenly his eyes lit up and he shook with delirious, ominous laughter.
I’ll let the video speak the disastrous rest.
Watch: The Vindaloo Experiment
For an epic foodie adventure from India, check out “A Hyderabad Idea, Part One: A 500 Mile Foodie Pilgrimage By Train“
For another, more terrifying video taste test, head over to “The 1,000 Year Old Egg (& The Three Penis Wine)“
To see me eat a live octopus, check out “Off The Eaten Path: A Culinary Tour of Korea, Part One”