The science behind spice

Dear readers,

The other week, I tried the korean “nuclear fire noodles”. As a spice lover, the nuclear fire noodles created a familiar warmth in my belly that I thoroughly enjoyed. Happily slurping a bite, I noticed one of my friends chugging a bottle of milk straight from the carton. It made me think: why do some people handle spice better than others? As someone newly interested in cognitive science, I thought I’d do some research and share with you all the science behind the tolerance of spice and the flavor profiles of science. (“In the name of science!” I say, as I use this as an excuse to try every spicy noodle to exist)

Did you know? Spice is not a taste, it is a form of pain sensation! Perhaps the reason we like (and sometimes crave) this strange counterintuitive pain is because pain stimulates the release of endorphins (the same feel-good sensations that come with ‘runner’s high’!)

Capsaicin (comes in chilli, paprika, tabasco sauce: Mexican)

​This spice is the type of spice that is generally associated with the general term of ‘spice’, the kind of spice you think about when someone mentions “the world’s hottest pepper”! Capsaicin triggers the cells known as the trigeminal cells which are pain receptor cells in the mouth. Your brain then receives these signals and releases endorphins – which is why people can be conditioned to love the sensation of capsaicin (I know that I fall into this category!)

Where to on campus? Honest Tom’s Taco Shop/Our very own Frontera!

Wasabi (comes in horseradish, wasabi plant: Japanese) 

The wasabi plant is known as the Japanese Horseradish and it is actually sweet in nature – Real wasabi is grated into a paste that is mixed lightly with water, and it stimulates the nasal passages more than the tongue. This is why I call wasabi the “flash” of spices – it is brutal, but quick. As soon as you register its presence, it leaves.

On the right, there is a picture from my trip to japan that shows the wasabi root in its natural form – we were told to grate it into our soy sauce.

Where to on campus? Japanese – Cozara/OChatto

Szechuan pepper (found in Mala: Chinese) 

Known as the ‘numbing spice’ that accompanies a feast of dumplings or a hot bowl of fresh noodles, this chinese spice is extremely potent, and makes your lips numb. This is known as “Parasthesia”, and it feels like a weird, tingling feeling that lasts a while after you consume the dish. This is my least favorite type of spice, but also the spice that is the most familiar to me due to my Chinese heritage. My grandmother used to feed us this spice as children in order to build up our spice tolerance!​

Where to on campus? Chinese – Dim Sum Garden/OCHATTO

Aromatic Spice (found in turmeric: Indian/Thai restaurants)

Whenever I walk into an Indian restaurant, I get a whiff of a spice that I cannot place my finger on. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize this as turmeric. Brewed with coconut milk, paprika and mild mustard, this warm spice is the mildest out of all the spices mentioned. It’s earthy, homely and creamy, giving curry the orange-ish color. With Indian food, a myriad of spices are used – all decadent and flavorful. In the hottest curries, there is cayenne pepper added but most curries are actually mostly turmeric and coconut based (perfect for newbies!) Similarly, Thai food (one of my all time favorite cuisines) uses punchy, unique flavors of lemongrass, fresh basil, thai chilli powder and coriander to their green curries. The flavors of Thai and Indian cuisines can range in spiciness, but these two cuisines are the best for complete novices in spice because of the variety provided.

Where to on campus? New Delhi/IndeBlue, Pattaya

Of course it is impossible to touch on all the cuisines that I adore, but hopefully this spice catalog made you more aware of what spices there are and made novices a little more keen to try a little more spice in their food!


Written by: Nicole Seah