Why does ‘cili padi’ burn your tongue?

When you bite into a cili padi, your brain is tricked into thinking it’s burning and thus makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire. (Rawpixel pic)

There is no denying that Malaysians of all ethnicities love their spices.

Can you even enjoy a packet of Nasi Lemak without its attendant sambal? A Char Kway Teow would be simply bland with its chilli paste. And what would Indian cuisine be without that added kick of chilli powder?

But what is it about spices that makes people crave for it?

Why does your mouth feel like it has been set ablaze after biting into cili padi? Why does pepper leave your eyes watery? And what is the spiciest spice that has ever graced the human tongue?

To get to the bottom of this, one has to first define what spiciness is.

Spiciness is not exactly a taste, like sweetness or saltiness.

When you eat spicy food, a compound contained in them trigger a sensory neuron called polymodal nociceptors that are activated by extreme heat.

When you bite into a cili padi, your brain is tricked into thinking it’s burning and thus makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire.

Inversely, when you eat something with menthol, like a minty chewing gum or sweet, your cold receptors are triggered.

As you bite into something spicy, your body will believe that it is close to a dangerous source of heat and triggers its response system.

Spices of various sorts on display at a market. (Pixabay pic)

You start to sweat as your heartbeat increases in rapidity. The body’s natural fight-or-flight response kicks into action just because of the chillies, despite the lack of any actual threat.

But not all spices are created equal.

While some make you run for the water dispenser, others are a mere tingle on your tongue. Why? It all depends on the compounds lurking inside the spices.

Black pepper and chillies have capsaicin and piperine, made of molecules that stay on your tongue because of their large size. The molecules in mustard, horseradish and wasabi are smaller and easily float up to your nose.

That’s why cili padi burns your tongue while wasabi tickles your nose.

The Scoville scale is how researchers determine the spiciness of a food item. The scale measures how much of the food item’s capsaicin content can be diluted before the heat is no longer noticeable to humans.

Farmers and gastronomists have long been trying to make the spiciest spice of all.

Two of them generally claim the title, namely the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and the Carolina Reaper, both of which are half as spicy as pepper spray.

So why would anyone want to eat something that sets their mouths on fire?

It is unknown why humans first started feasting on peppers, but spices have been discovered in 23,000-year-old archaeological sites. The purpose of the spices is unknown however.

Some studies suggest that people who love spicy food are likelier to enjoy other adrenaline-pumping activities like gambling. (Rawpixel pic)

A 6,000-year-old artefact did however prove that spices were consumed as food, with the discovery of preserved fish and meat laced with mustard. Some scientists believe that spices were added as preservatives.

But why do humans today still love their spices?

For some people, they just like the exhilarating thrill of eating spicy food even if it burns their tongue.

Some studies suggest that people who love spicy food are likelier to enjoy other adrenaline-pumping activities like gambling.

Genetics might also play a role in determining whether you have a fondness for spicy food.

If you are trying to increase your spice tolerance, be aware that you will eventually toughen up over time.

The burning sensation is the same no matter how much you like your spice. The difference is whether you like the burning or not.

So load up on your spices with your next meal and prepare to set your taste buds alight.