Stimulation and Sensitizing

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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We may also enjoy spicy food because irritation adds a new dimension to the experience of eating. Recent research has found that, at least in the case of the pepper and chilli irritants, there’s a lot more to pungency than a simple burn. These compounds induce a temporary inflammation in the mouth, transforming it into an organ that is more “tender,” more sensitive to other sensations. Those heightened sensations include touch, temperature, and the irritating aspects of various other ingredients, including salt, acids, carbonation (which becomes carbonic acid), and alcohol. It’s the pepper that makes Chinese hot and sour soup, which is hot and acidic and salty, into such an intense experience. A few mouthfuls and we become conscious of simply breathing: our mouth becomes so sensitive that exhaling body-temperature air feels like a textured hot bath, inhaling room-temperature air like a refreshingly cool breeze.